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Behind the Curtain

Rama Gottumukkala and Sean Sweany | Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Rama: Magic is an art form built around misdirection. In film, its first cousin is the thriller, a genre where, like a fragile deck of cards, deceitful twists and turns are layered one on top of the other.

With his 2006 film “The Prestige,” director Christopher Nolan melded the two pursuits together in hopes of conjuring the greatest magic trick the cinema had ever seen. The result is a superb film about the devotion of two illusionists to their craft, and the darkness that drives them to pursue their great triumphs.

At the heart of “The Prestige” lies a rivalry between two Victorian era stage magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). Angier is the more gifted showman but he lacks Borden’s ingenuity and passion for creating new tricks. When his wife Julia (Piper Perabo) drowns after a water tank illusion goes awry, Angier is inconsolable and blames Borden. A friendship built upon a mutual admiration dissolves, replaced by a vindictive, near murderous, need to trump the other’s skill.

What Borden and Angier fail to realize is that between the two of them, they share the two greatest gifts a magician can have – creativity and showmanship, respectively. A truly great illusionist lacks neither one. But instead of pooling their talents, the two men waste much of their professional and personal lives on a much darker obsession than magic – each other.

The very first line of the film – Borden’s, “Are you watching closely?” – is more than a plea. It’s a dare to us, the audience, to outwit two very clever men – brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, who shared the writing duties on this film.

With the film’s recent release on DVD, it becomes increasingly clear just how often the Nolans dangle the secrets to the film’s puzzle in front of our noses. Small snippets of conversation, a look from one periphery character to another and subtleties in the performances of Bale and Jackman are the crumbs left by the two writers.

Films like “The Prestige” are made to be watched and rewatched, savored for the way they pull a steady curtain of deception over our eyes. Smart, stylish and sly, it deserves its place alongside gems like “The Usual Suspects,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Fight Club” and Nolan’s own “Memento” – four of the cleverest thrillers (and best films) of the last decade.

Sadly, like a true magician, Nolan refuses to reveal many of his secrets on this single-disc DVD. Most conspicuously, there’s no commentary track by Nolan, who previously recorded ones for “Following,” “Memento” and “Insomnia.” In general, the special features are sparse, which is a shame because “The Prestige” is more than a simple parlor trick. The film also works as a sumptuous period piece. It glamorizes the routinely dull Victorian era, a time when magic was bowing out to an even-greater power – science.

“The Director’s Notebook,” a 19-minute featurette, is a collection of interviews and footage behind the set where Nolan is joined by Bale, Jackman, cinematographer Wally Pfister, production designer Nathan Crowley and other members of the crew. The feature is brief but informative, and it’s hard not to come away with an appreciation for how much thought went into the film’s careful set and costume design and its dark, moody, and often beautiful look.

The only other feature is “The Art of The Prestige,” a gallery of production stills, posters, costumes and sets, all arranged in slideshow fashion. It’s a fun addition but is often the most-lightly regarded extra on much grander releases like the superlative “Lord of the Rings” extended editions. Here, it seems like more effort was spent on the DVD’s charming and elegant menu system than the special features that system houses.

Fortunately, the movie itself looks and sounds great. With deep, rich colors and a sharpness to the film’s many hazy and dimly-lit scenes, the video, especially, is near-reference quality.

Twenty minutes into “The Prestige,” Bale reveals one of his tricks to a wide-eyed young fan. He warns the boy, “Never show anyone. They’ll beg you and they’ll flatter you for the secret, but as soon as you give it up, you’ll be nothing to ’em.

“The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.”

After successfully pulling off a fantastic sleight of hand with this film, it’s unfortunate to see Nolan follow his own character’s advice for the DVD.

Sean: Audiences face a conundrum when it comes to magic tricks. On one hand, there is a strong desire to know how magicians accomplish their fantastic tricks, but on the other, this knowledge spoils the fun of the trick, which might be off-putting for some audiences.

“The Prestige” sets itself up as a movie that aims to maintain the illusion of the magician’s world while also unraveling it for audiences through its narrative structure – a conflict in terms that hurts what should otherwise be a superb film.

From the beginning, “The Prestige” has a lot going for it. A plot about rival Victorian-era magicians constantly trying to outdo one another in their obsession-driven pursuits of love, power and fame is inherently exciting. Christopher Nolan – well respected for films such as “Memento” and “Insomnia” – directs an all-star cast including Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlet Johansson and Michael Caine (a veritable “Batman Begins” reunion), another reason for film fans to rejoice.

Jackman and Bale play well off each other, creating characters whose obsessions appear real and believable. Of the two, Bale is the better actor, and this is manifest in his character, whose appearance onscreen belies a deep, emotional, human element – as Bale’s characters usually do.

The supporting cast of “The Prestige” is phenomenal, with Michael Caine, David Bowie and Andy Serkis headlining the group. Johansson is limited mostly to role of eye-candy, but she does not try to exceed these bounds and her acting accordingly complements that of her fellow actors.

In addition to all these positives, “The Prestige” is a beautiful film to watch. Nolan and his production crew take advantage of the visually appealing Victorian age as a setting, creating a rich, textured world for viewers to pore over with their eyes.

So, with all of these redeeming qualities, what causes the DVD release of “The Prestige” to fall short of the mark?

The answer basically comes down to the film’s storytelling. Nolan’s plan in making the movie was to create a mystery within a mystery, and in order to do this effectively, the narrative of the film must make frequent jumps between various times and places. This is largely accomplished in two sections of the movie where the magicians, Angier and Borden, learn certain facts that further the plot by reading the diary of the other.

While a good idea in theory, Nolan’s execution of this technique is clumsy and confusing. Viewers can spend more time trying to figure out how the narrative is working than they can spend enjoying it, which is not a good sign. One tagline for “The Prestige” recommended multiple viewings, presumably for enjoyment, but these could be necessary just to understand the convoluted storytelling.

It is a shame that the method of storytelling has such glaring flaws, for the rest of the film itself is exceptional, especially when compared to its contemporaneous competitor, “The Illusionist.” The potential here was high, but Nolan miscalculated his approach to the film and did not achieve that potential.

Nevertheless, “The Prestige” is an entertaining, if not great, film and deserves better treatment than it has received on DVD. Two, yes, two special features fill out the disc to give fans a peek into how the film was made.These features are insightful and well done, but their brevity and paucity detracts from the experience they begin to promise. Finally, an inconsistent sound quality during the film perhaps indicates a lack of studio effort in putting together the DVD for “The Prestige.”

Overall, the DVD of “The Prestige” is a very mixed package. Excellent plot, acting, directing and set design exist in a confusing method of storytelling and on a single-disc DVD that is painfully light on special features. This ultimately makes for an entertaining rental that disappoints because of what it could have been.