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A solid adaptation of a decent novel, The Prestige is a spry magic act with a nifty final sleight of hand.

Are You Watching Closely?

Bale works his magic
Bale works his magic

The Prestige tells the tale of rival magicians in early 20th century London. One, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale, The Machinist), is a natural-born magician, a man who can quickly see through the smoke and mirrors and unlock the secrets behind any magic trick.

The other is Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman, X-Men). He doesn’t hold the same ingenuity as Borden, but he becomes obsessed with outdoing Borden at every turn.

As their rivalry escalates, the two spar in front of audiences, each one trying to sabotage the other’s tricks.

The novel by Christopher Priest loosely incorporated the true-life exploits of historic figures like Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle. In particular, Priest plundered freely from Houdini’s competitive instincts as a magician as well as his mission to debunk spiritualists who conned people looking for solace after the loss a loved one. (Fittingly, the movie’s theatrical release coincided with the 80th anniversary of Houdini’s passing on October 31, 1926.)

The movie pares back on that historical inspiration, but in exchange it ratchets up the Borden/Angier rivalry, extending the deadly consequences of their ruthlessness to their closest loved ones.

Abracadabra

The screenplay by brothers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, who teamed up previously on Memento and are currently at work on The Dark Knight, ups the ante and makes a couple dramatic, but appropriate, departures from the novel in an effort to emphasize the high-risk stakes of the magicians’ duel.

Creating effective illusions is not an easy business, as Borden and Angier can attest. And a great trick’s secret is like gold dust to its creator. Upon retirement, a magician can sell his secrets and thus have a nice nest egg for their golden years.

But, at the same time, to reveal a trick’s secret can only lead to disappointment as the extraordinary is brought back down to mundane reality.

The Prestige deftly plays off both of those elements; Angier is obsessed with unraveling the secret to Borden’s miraculous new trick, called The Transported Man. In the trick, Borden bounces a rubber ball across the stage, disappears behind one door, only to reappear through a door on the other side of the stage — just in time to catch the bouncing ball.

Angier’s obsession takes him to Colorado Springs for a meeting with Nikola Tesla (David Bowie, Labyrinth), himself at odds with his own rival in the electric business, Thomas Edison. Led on by Borden and convinced Tesla’s “real magic” helped Borden with his transporter trick, Angier is willing to pay any sum to get a similar device and — with his panache for showmanship — outdo Borden.

The Play’s the Thing

Bowie is marvelous as Tesla, who appears as a quiet, calm genius, one all-too painfully aware of the dangers of obsession.

For that matter, most of the cast is truly top notch, particularly Bale and Caine, reteaming with their Batman Begins director. Jackman also delivers great performances as both Angier and his drunken doppelganger.

Surprisingly, the weakest link in this magic trick is Scarlett Johansson as Olivia, the lovely assistant who serves both Borden and Angier on stage and at home. Normally a solid performer who’s comfortable in foreign territory (as in Girl with a Pearl Earring and Scoop), she seems a little out of place amidst the fine-tuned talent of her cast mates; her faux British accent frequently does its own disappearing act. That’s not to say she’s terrible, but she has done better.

That one chink aside, The Prestige is enjoyable and evenly paced. Ultimately a rumination on the power of technology and its innocence-shattering aftershocks, it’s a yarn that doubles as a cautionary tale about obsession and the seduction of the limelight.

DVD Extras

Touchstone didn’t put a lot of effort into the supplements; it wouldn’t have been hard to conjure up a lot more material.

Nonetheless, the primary supplement, a 20-minute featurette with a disproportionately long title, The Director’s Notebook: The Cinematic Sleight of Hand of Christopher Nolan, is excellent. Various aspects of the production are covered during the multi-part documentary, which includes good insight from the director, interviews with all the key players except, unfortunately, David Bowie, and brief comments from novelist Christopher Priest.

The featurette also includes an all-too brief look at the real-life Nikola Tesla. Much more could have been done with this aspect of the material, as well as other sources of inspiration, such as Harry Houdini.

Also on tap is a photo gallery that includes production stills, costumes and sets, behind-the-scenes coverage, and faux poster art promoting Borden, Angier, and other magicians appearing in the film.

One interesting little twist involves the main menu itself. At the bottom are four icons; selecting each one changes the images used on the menu’s accompanying card trick.

Picture and Sound

The film’s presentation is very good, featuring a solid 2.35:1 transfer enhanced for 16x9 TVs.

As for the audio, the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track (available in English, French and Spanish) is good, but it tends to require pumped up volume during most of the movie.

Also available are subtitles in French, Spanish and English for the hearing impaired.

How to Use This DVD

Watch The Prestige. Watch closely. Then check out The Director’s Notebook and, for the heck of it, sift through the The Art of The Prestige Gallery.