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Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Prestige

I’m a sucker for magic. For instance, I truly believe that if I wish hard enough and long enough Hugh Jackman will come riding in on a motorcycle and sweep me up behind him, ask me where I have been all of his life, and then whisk me away to a castle somewhere where we will live happily, if exhausted, ever after. Okay, so that would be more of an actual miracle than a wee bit of magic, but a gal can dream, can’t she? I’m not ashamed. Even my perfectly perfect husband knows that when it comes to Hugh I have no self-control. As a matter of fact, he is so perfect that he accepts me and my addiction for what it is ~hopeless ~ and has even willingly honored me in my fixation by taking me to Broadway to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my 30th birthday by spending the evening with Hugh as he performed in “The Boy From Oz” a couple of years back. Ever since then I’ve been waiting patiently by the phone to hear from my Hugh, but he’s apparently been too busy making movies, like this latest release, now playing at the Essex Cinemas, called The Prestige.

I’ll apologize in advance to anyone who shows up in the theater showing The Prestige at the
Essex Cinemas this week in case you hear a lot of heavy sighing. It’s probably me in the back row, indulging in a little Hugh worship, or, as I call it, “Hugh-iblation!” Come by and introduce yourself. I’m always happy to meet other movie lovers as long as you remember not to talk when Hugh is on the screen.

I’m sorry, but I’ll try to do my best to describe the film with a little less distraction for those of you interested in something other than the X-Man who would be Wolverine.

Okay, my mind is clear, and I can assure you that despite my obvious obsession The Prestige stands up well enough on its’ own as one exciting
and confounding movie. It takes place around the turn of the 20th Century as Rupert Angier (guess Hugh?) is trying to decipher the private journal of a rival magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale; Batman Begins) while Borden is in the last moments of a trial and is being sentenced to hang for murder. From here, the story jumps back and forth as we see a chronicle of two men and how they came to reach the point where they are this day.

A few years earlier both men were devoted assistants to a well-known stage magician who called on them nightly as supposed audience members to come forward and help him with a death-defying trick. Unfortunately, one night the trick does not defy death, and Julia (Piper Perabo; 10th & Wolf), the beautiful assistant put in jeopardy by the stunt, dies tragically. She happened to be Rupert’s wife, and her death comes as a result of something
Alfred may have done during the preparatory moment before the trick. From this moment on, the friendship between the two colleagues is fractured and Rupert becomes an obsessed, angry and bitter man determined to regain his life by getting revenge on Alfred and also becoming a more successful magician in the process. I guess it really is true. Success is the best revenge. Now, if only they’d had match.com back in Victorian England then Rupert’s problems would have all been solved quicker than you can say “abracadabra” and he could have gotten over Julia, found a new sweetheart, and his life would have been a lot less high drama, though it would have made for a whole lot shorter and duller movie to be sure.

Meanwhile, as Rupert stews, Alfred moves on and soon marries some non-entity named Sarah (Rebecca Hall; Starter for Ten) and in short order becomes a father to a little girl who could grow into a Dakota Fanning clone if given the chance. His career takes off as he invents an illusion known as “The Transported Man”, in which he disappears on one side of the stage and reappears mere seconds later on the other side while the curtains remain wide open for all the audience to see the stage during this entire segue. Such a trick appears impossible and despite Rupert’s manager, Cutter (Michael Caine; Children of Men), offering the only possible solution to the
illusion, Rupert will not be satisfied until he has unequivocally uncovered the truth. He becomes sort of an Agent Mulder in a waistcoat but with Scarlett Johansson (Scoop) as his sometime Scully in a bustle when she’s not sleeping with Borden. She may be “Esquire” Magazine’s “Most Beautiful Woman in the World” but it seems like she ought to be called “Movies’ Most Passed Around Woman” since she seems to be in every other flick these days and has spent more time between the sheets than your average coma patient.

The narrative jumps back and forth along its’ timeline to and from several points, a favorite technique of director Christopher Nolan (Memento). The near-madness that envelops Angiers grows with every twist along his way to uncovering the truth behind Borden’s secrets and there is obviously no HMO with mental health benefits available for magicians. Worse yet, he descends deeper into explorations of his own that take him to Colorado and the experimental work of an eccentric real-life Russian scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie; Mr. Rice's Secret), who, along with his equally unusual assistant Alley (Andy Serkis; King Kong), do little to help with Rupert’s long-term mental stability. Their promises of creating a machine for him that will allow him to recreate the same “magic” as his rival is too tempting to resist, though it also seems too foolish to believe. But is it possible?

Before The Prestige is over, the secrets that both men hold are revealed and in some way they seem so simple they are anticlimactic, yet the answers have been before us all along. The first words in the film’s opening narration “Are you paying attention?” speak volumes, and clues litter the dialogue throughout. It’s just a matter of sifting through the truth and the distractions purposefully scattered about to confuse the viewer in order to discern what has obviously been there all along.

The movie brilliantly recreates the Victorian era from its’ costumes to its’ sets to the very photographic look of the film itself. While it is obviously filmed with modern equipment, it is lit in such a way to make it seem lighted
more naturally, by candlelight, by lanterns, by muted electric light when such devices are available. While the focus of the film is not on the differences of the classes, there is enough detail put into the sets to easily delineate the haves from the have-nots, and unlike the generically rosy picture many period movies seem to settle on, The Prestige makes a clear statement about what side of the fence you want to be on in this case, which certainly helps explain the motivation that drives both characters to keep up their never-ending competition to outdo one another and capture the attention of London’s theater-going public. Rich is definitely a whole lot better in 1897 London.

The Prestige is totally bewitching entertainment. Bale and Jackman, even stripped of their Batman and Wolverine personas, give performances that are super, and Caine, Bowie, Johansson, and Serkis provide equally great turns in their respective roles.

It’s great to see a have a story that is so different than what we usually see
onscreen. The maze of emotions and the complicated motivations of all of the characters make The Prestige a pleasure to watch unfold. With plentiful prestidigitation, surreptitious secrets, unexpected infidelity and murderous mayhem on the menu what’s not to like? Oh, and did I mention that Hugh Jackman is in it?

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