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Film review ***: The Magic, The Suspense, ...The Prestige...

Nolan Brothers Craft a Screenplay That Entertains ... And Horrifies

By Nivair H. Gabriel
ARTS EDITOR

The Prestige

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Based on the novel by Christopher Priest

Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan

Produced by Christopher Nolan, Aaron Ryder, and Emma Thomas

Starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, Andy Serkis, and David Bowie

Rated PG-13

Opens Today

Steampunk!

That’s what they call it when Victorian mystery meets modern technology meets fantastic magic that could never happen. For anyone who likes the idea of magicians in 18th century London (in cahoots with Nikola Tesla, no less!), “The Prestige” will be quite enticing. Director Christopher Nolan’s affinity for darkness, exemplified in “Batman Begins” and “Memento,” is a big asset here — the film, and the novel by Christopher Priest on which it was based, contain thrilling elements of horror. The old-fashioned, chilling mood is an alluring premise in itself, but together with brother Jonathan, Nolan also created a decent screenplay. “The Prestige” consistently entertains, and it’s got a few rare moments of brilliance.

The film begins with a box of water. After years of bitter rivalry, two magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) face each other backstage, each watching the other drown in a glass case as his trick turns utterly sour. This death, however, is merely the first act — we aren’t getting the full story.

As the film continues, we see the two men in both past and present, and the threads of the tale slowly twist themselves together. Though I’ve never read the book and I’m sure that some elements were added and others left out, the screenplay works. Nolan keeps the pace up; the plot doesn’t drag, and this reviewer’s mind was occupied without being confused.

Cinematographer Wally Pfister, who also worked with Nolan on “Batman Begins” and “Memento,” doesn’t do anything groundbreaking here, but the film still looks polished and beautiful. The magic tricks are presented with style; viewers will gleefully celebrate the suspense of every act. Unfortunately for MIT students, having an electrical engineering background makes it impossible to ooh and aah at some of the “magic” in the film (which tends to be either mundane or categorically impossible), but the tricks run primarily by actors are still impressive.

Piper Perabo, as magician Rupert Angier (Jackman)’s assistant and wife, excels in her portrayal of the most pivotal trick in the movie; she is the first member of a supporting cast that makes this movie delightful. Alfred Borden (Bale) also has a romantic foil — actress Rebecca Hall gives a gorgeous and sensitive performance here, and without her Borden’s character would have no depth. Unfortunately, however, the last romantic interest (Scarlett Johansson) is a dreadful stain on a movie filled with talented actors. Johansson, bereft of an expressive face, also can’t decide whether to be American or British, and since the rest of the actors have perfect accents, her lazy speech is that much more egregious. Thankfully, there are four more cast members to round out the talent: with Michael Caine, Andy Serkis, Roger Rees, and the indomitable David Bowie.

Leads Bale and Jackman, though unable to disguise their action-hero muscle, perform their intellectual roles with enthusiasm and play well off each other. Even though the script does not afford amazing opportunities for character development, both actors impress and engage — Bale especially. As Rupert Angier, Jackman inspires sympathy with his portrayal of a tortured, desperate man searching for a secret, and Alfred Borden’s treatment of him seems repugnant — until the movie flips a switch and suddenly Borden is the good-hearted underdog, and Angier the privileged and menacing overlord. It is a thought-provoking zigzag of emotions that carries through the entire film.

“The Prestige” is a period piece; it doesn’t set out to portray history, but to capture a fantastical place in genre, and it does that quite well. Though the film reveals no heartwrenching or weighty truths of life, it will give you hours of pure enjoyment, and a couple of interesting ideas to rattle around in your head. Put your trust in Christopher Nolan’s storytelling, Christian Bale’s fabulous acting, and a well-chosen and talented supporting cast. You won’t be disappointed.