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Monday, March 23, 2015

Recommended!: The Prestige (2006)

A magic trick, Christopher Nolan's movie begins by explaining, is divided into three phases: the pledge, in which, roughly, a person or everyday object is introduced; the turn, in which that person/object disappears; and the prestige, in which the person/object is returned/restored.

The Prestige, from the novel by Christopher Priest, chronicles the increasingly obsessive and tragic campaign of oneupmanship between a pair of turn-of-the-century stage magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman). It returns repeatedly to the three-part structure outlined above, as Bale and Jackman seek to figure out, then undermine, each other's show-stopping illusions. And yet the movie deftly plays its own sleight-of-hand games, hiding details in plain sight to be explained hours later, allowing the audience to get ahead of it before adding another deft reveal, and even taking a quiet but hard left turn into the fantastic.

Nolan executes all of these flourishes with a surprisingly light touch. Nolan's high-budget but auteur driven projects like the Dark Knight trilogy have established his reputation as a maker of intelligent and expansive blockbusters. Yet for this writer his work has often been characterized by an alienating coolness, an approach to his characters as if observing them on a petri dish. And yet for all of its flaws, Nolan's latest movie Interstellar revealed him more than capable of delivering human characters engaged in real relationships (indeed, its galaxy-spanning story hinges in many ways on the love of its main character for his daughter). And so looking at The Prestige in light of this (and independent of the other magic-themed movies that overshadowed its release in 2006) reveals that there was, perhaps, a humanity present in Nolan's work all along. Bale and Jackman are surprisingly relaxed in their roles, letting us feel the weight of the sacrifices each has made for their art, and their conflict with one another. But the greatest expression of the movie's heart comes in its graceful and moving final reveal, a surprising reinforcement of magic's three-part structure, an affirmation of the flesh-and-blood heart which, before our very eyes, had been beating all along.

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