"Are you watching closely?" [Alfred Borden, first line]
Felt the need to begin my review with the line the movie itself opens with, because this is precisely what you should do the whole time you watch it. But, no matter how much attention you pay, your mind will still be thoroughly f****d when you reach the end. Because that's how epic this movie is.
The director is Cristopher Nolan. Is this really the same man who directed Insomnia? Because when I watched that one, I thought IMDb was playing tricks on me. The difference between them is mind-boggling, which also reflects in the way I rated the two movies. So, without further ado, let's begin the review; we're in for a long one this time.
Alfred Borden and Robert Angier are two apprentices who, unbeknownst to the public, help a magician with his acts. Unfortunately, during a very difficult and dangerous trick, Angier's wife (who is also the magician's assistant) accidentally drowns. In his grief, Angier points to Borden as the killer, but the case is ruled out as accidental. However, this marks the start of a deep rivalry between the two, which quickly turns into a battle for obtaining fame and the method to perform the ultimate illusion.
Cutter shows Angier a new way to present his act.
As the two main characters, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale carry the weight of the movie on their shoulders, and they certainly deliver. I couldn't help but grin at Bale's smug demeanor whenever he topped Angier's acts, and be sad whenever Angier tried to defeat Borden, often to the expense of the happiness of others. This is what I like to see in movies: actors who play strange characters and make them believable, relatable, without going over the top and making fools of themselves.
I should also mention David Bowie in the role of Nikola Tesla, who maintained a delightful aura of mystery; as this is the first time I've seen him act (no, I haven't seen Labyrinth yet, but it's on the list), I can't compare him to previous works, but it's safe to say his performance was solid. The female characters, played by Piper Perabo and Scarlett Johansson, were also believable and seeing their emotional pain was downright difficult to watch at times (there's nothing more frustrating than almost screaming at the screen, I tell you).
Aside from the main plot, the subplots provide excellent depth and complete the whole image: Olivia and Julia's struggles with Angier and Borden, Tesla and his rival Edison (yes, the Thomas Edison, read up on it and you'll be surprised), and more characters I won't elaborate on because that would mean giving away the ending.
Beautiful cinematography, music and sets, all creating a magical (pardon the pun) atmosphere which contributes to the depth of the movie. The scenery ranges from theaters where Angier and Borden perform, to their homes, to the prison cell Borden is locked up in. The lighting and colors change as well: whenever a tense scene is playing, we have cold, bright lights, high contrast and dark colors, as opposed to the dim lights and warm colors present during the more romantic or relaxed moments.
Nikola Tesla: badass much?
After my first viewing I was a bit on the fence about how the ultimate illusion was executed; I talked about it more in The Plain WTF, without giving away the actual result, though, just the medium. After the second viewing, I took it this way: the movie is mainly a character study, with magic as a pretext. I suppose it won't seem that out of place if you take it this way, too.
Some may complain about the non-linear structure. I can't stress this enough, you'll understand what happens and in which order if you pay attention. This isn't just some silly made-for-TV thriller where you can see only the ending and predict the rest; this requires at least one second viewing. Even if you do guess the twists on the first viewing, you'll still have a lot to appreciate the second time around. This being said, this is not a bad point; I expect someone who wants to sees this is mature enough to sit down and watch closely for two hours without throwing tantrums.
The Plain WTF (spoilers about the ultimate illusion)
...which isn't quite an illusion. This is where things start to get weird, as the movie ventures into the realm of science fiction. The machine Angier uses is built by Tesla and operates solely on the basis of scientific facts (however, one character refers to it as "true magic", so you may take it either way). The first time I saw the movie, this plot device sounded kind of out of place for the theme, but things tie up nicely in the end.
It's all a matter of perspective.
Robert Angier: I thought you said I'd have to get my hands dirty.
Cutter: Maybe someday you will; I just needed to know that you could.
Robert Angier [referring to Borden]: He's a dreadful magician.
Cutter: No, he's a wonderful magician. He's a dreadful showman.
Olivia Wenscombe: I'm here to give your show what's still missing.
Alfred Borden: Yeah? What might that be?
Olivia Wenscombe: Me.
Borden ridicules Angier even during a performance of the latter.
Verdict and recommendations
Needless to say, I was beyond impressed. At first it was a bit confusing because the pacing is fast and you aren't spared a moment to relax, but everything comes together in the end and the loose ends are tied up. In spite of this, you may find yourself debating the characters' actions, which is always welcome since there is a lot to debate indeed (and, of course, sides to take). I am proud to say that, thanks to all it has to offer, this movie proudly took its well-deserved place among my all-time favorites.
An important recommendation I want to make after seeing all the confusion and angst on the IMDb board: don't concentrate solely on the twist; a lot of people were disappointed because it didn't live up to their expectations. Try to see the whole picture, even if it seems difficult. And to provide a hint: listen closely to Cutter's narration in the beginning.
My rating: (10 out of 10)
The Prestige (2006) on IMDb.com