October 20, 2006

NOW THAT'S A GRACIOUS REVIEW:

The Magic of Deep Characters Strikes Again (STEVEN SNYDER, October 20, 2006, NY Sun)

Even before "The Prestige," [Christopher] Nolan's fourth major film, the 36-year-old director had proven an uncanny ability to play with time and structure, turning shallow gimmicks into drama of almost Shakespearean magnitude.

His breakout, 2000's "Memento," played out from end to beginning (matching the main character's lack of short-term memory), setting the audience up for an ending that rewrote everything that had come prior. In 2002's "Insomnia," he made time itself the enemy of a weary, sleepless, paranoid detective. His work in last year's "Batman Begins" didn't just resuscitate a franchise by excavating its roots, but revived the realism of the superhero film, painting Bruce Wayne not as a savior but as a conflicted and tortured soul, protecting the very city that despised him.

And so arrives "The Prestige," a stylish film that's far more captivating than it really deserves to be — an optical illusion that earns our admiration more than our comprehension.

Again playing with time, Mr. Nolan — along with co-writer and co-sibling Jonathan Nolan, from the book by Christopher Priest — divides the film's timeline into three sections. In the far past, we see the earliest days of Alfred (Christian Bale) and Robert's (Hugh Jackman) magic careers. Planted in the audience, they are the assistants of a third-rate hack, chosen by the magician to come up on-stage and help tie up assistant Julia (Piper Perabo), preparing her restraints for the infamous water tank stunt. It's a setup that's directly linked to what's to come — or, as Mr. Nolan depicts it, what came before.

Sporadically, we learn about Alfred and Robert's clashing personalities — Alfred is more arrogant and ambitious, Robert more cautious and pragmatic — and see Alfred's determination to do things his own way.

He starts to improvise with the act, tying different kinds of knots around Julia's hands, which worries Robert, her husband. When one night she can't slip the knots off her hands, she drowns, and at her funeral, it becomes clear the two men will be enemies for life.

But in true Christopher Nolan style, this is not where we start the film. Much like "Batman Begins," we begin this mystery at the midpoint, as one of the two magicians lies in a jail cell, convicted of murdering the other. And like "Memento," we watch the past catch the present, as Alfred and Robert become embroiled in a game of cat and mouse — or unsuspecting magician and assistant — as they pursue each other in advance of this murder.

If this sounds confusing, it's because Mr. Nolan is more skilled a director than I am a writer.


Posted by Orrin Judd at October 20, 2006 1:33 PM
Comments

Technically, "Memento" ran from the beginning AND the end, and ended with the middle.

Posted by: Just John at October 20, 2006 1:41 PM

We would really like go to the cinema this weekend, but the offerings don't appeal. Is "Prestige" an innovative interesting film or one filled with hideous violence and dizzying artistic camera angles? I can't tell anything by the reviews. "Flags ... " sounds too bloody for my taste. Any other suggestions? Caveat, I won't see anything featuring Alec Baldwin et al.

Posted by: erp at October 21, 2006 11:08 AM
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