Every great magic trick consists of three acts. The first act is called "The Pledge." The magician shows you something ordinary...but, of course, it probably isn't.
That's the first part of the short speech that's being used to sell the film The Prestige to viewing audiences. The words are, as the speech says, something ordinary...but, of course, they aren't. They aren't because they're spoken by Michael Caine, in his iconic, slightly hoarse voice of suspense and mystery. This man doesn't so much have a secret as knows there's one here, and his greatest thrill in life is to show it to you. He's not the magician. That's not his job. You don't see him. You hear him.
It's very difficult to review this film properly without offering spoilers, but I'm going to give it a go - there is no story information in this review that isn't available from the movie's preview trailer. Have you ever settled into a movie theater seat after an interminable series of previews and (nowadays) ads, popcorn at the ready (or, if you're like me, half gone) and had that feeling of "can we please get on with this?" If so, then at this point, you'll feel right at home when this film starts. If you've watched the preview, this film's Pledge will offer you exactly what a pledge should - something ordinary. It's a film about two men (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman), stage magicians, whose lives are intertwined, and the first act will show you how they got that way. It's got enough interesting elements in it to lift it beyond a linear action movie. This is Christopher Nolan, after all; you didn't think the man who gave you Memento was going to tell you a straight story, did you? Other than that, though, it's a very workmanlike period piece, well-filmed with enough of a 'back lot' air to it to keep it from being an 'extravaganza' and noteworthy for its art.
The second act is called "The Turn." The magician makes this ordinary something do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret, but you won't find it.
The second act continues the formula. Something ordinary does become something...slightly extraordinary. This is presaged by the preview, which can't help but give away some of what makes this story extraordinary. You will start looking for the secret - but which one? There are several here, it becomes clear; there's the secret in in the movie, and (if you're at all sapient) you'll begin to realize there's a secret to the movie, as well. And thus, you'll start looking for one or more of them. Will you find it? The speech says you won't. I can't tell you if that's true. Certainly it's unlikely you'll find any of them at the start of the second act, because there simply isn't enough information to even know where they're going; but I will say that there's enough information leaking around to give away some of what Nolan's doing. Remember, these are magicians. Even moviemakers are magicians, of a sort, as are scriptwriters, and whether the Nolans are as good at their craft as their characters are at theirs - well, that's for you to judge.
That's why there's a third act, called "The Prestige." This is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking that you've never seen before.
The third act is where The Prestige starts to show signs of danger. If the movie is a clockwork mechanism, a steampunk Victorian orrery on a seven per cent solution amped up with the dark energy of one of Tesla's oscillators and spinning too fast, this is where you would sense rather than hear a dangerous vibration in the floorboards. It might make you think of stepping back a pace - because when something this complex and fast-moving starts shuddering like that, no matter how lightly, all you can think about is the speed at which the pieces will be moving if it goes unbalanced and flies apart.
Does it unbalance? I can't tell you with any assurance. I personally don't think it did, completely. This is a subjective judgement; you can't of course see bits of plot and believability come juddering off the screen. But to stretch a bad metaphor further, if it didn't come apart, the last few minutes certainly saw it (to me) get unbalanced enough to rob it of the manic speed with which it had been propelling me along and keeping me from looking to closely at the Man Behind The Curtain, or the Prop Rubber Saw, or whatever the Mcguffin is that I'm not supposed to see. I did figure out a few of the secrets. Not all of them. But enough to rob the ending of what may have been the WHOOMP that is required to make this an untrammeled WHEEEEEE of a ride. I have a suspicion that one of the Nolans and I have read the same classic scifi short story.
Having said that, I don't think this is because the cast failed in their tasks. I don't even think it's because the Nolans did, either, unless it was at attempting a bit too complex a piece of magic with not quite enough rehearsals of the showmanship that decorates it. I was happy with the $9.00 I paid to see it in the theater, especially since it was a gripping 2:15 - and few enough movies are that long for the price and fewer still are entertaining for the whole time.
Technically, the film is very well done. It's filmed in very dark environments, by choice; it's almost period lit (1890-1900 or so) with lamplight and early electric, in basement halls and primitive theaters. While the lighting isn't nearly as luscious as, say, Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, that's sort of like saying the new midrange Mercedes sedan isn't quite a Ferrari. The former is a well-engineered vehicle whose job is to not get in your way when performing its primary task, which is that of being a car. The latter...well, the latter's job is to be, in your face, a car to such ludicrous extremes you can drip the experience from your lips while grinning in unalloyed hedonism. The soundtrack was perfectly adequate, creating the required moods without telegraphing too much - I am complimenting it when I say I didn't notice it. There were no 'tie in songs' to distract me. The theater I was in had a crappy sound system, unfortunately, so I can't comment on the surround mix; I suspect that given the environments some of the scenes take place in, there were some excellent opportunities for surround sound magic.
Perhaps the best question to ask yourself after you've seen it is one that is asked during the movie several times, and your answer may have bearing on whether you enjoyed it.
Are you watching closely?
Maybe you shouldn't be.
2006 Touchstone Pictures
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan - based on a book by Christopher Priest according to DejaMorgana (Thanks DM!)