March 29, 2020
Column

‘The Prestige’ brings a little magic to period thriller

In theaters

THE PRESTIGE, directed by Christopher Nolan, written by Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, 135 minutes, rated PG-13.

If movies are among our greatest, most enduring vehicles for illusion, deceiving us on nearly every level to generate a manufactured form of reality, then a movie about dueling illusionists should, in theory, offer that same sleight of hand – only amplified.

Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” is just that sort of movie, and in spite of arriving so soon on the heels of the similar “The Illusionist,” it pulls through with panache.

The film, which Nolan (“Insomnia,” “Batman Begins”) co-wrote with his brother, Jonathan, is among the year’s more compelling and baffling movies, a beautifully photographed, nicely acted period thriller in which two popular illusionists working the crowds in 19th-century London are divided by an obsession that’s far from magical.

It is, in fact, murderous.

Since the movie follows Nolan’s “Memento” in that much of its success depends on revealing as little of its fractured plot as possible, we’ll brush only the edges.

The film stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, respectively, two competing magicians who begin the movie on a disastrous note when Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo) drowns in a trick gone awry.

Since it was Borden who tied together her wrists for the trick, employing a knot from which she might not be able to escape when she was dropped into the tank of water (she didn’t think it would be a problem), Angier blames Borden for her death and their bitter, all-consuming rivalry is born.

What Nolan mounts from this is a controlled spectacle of rage, jealousy and hubris, with a marvelously cast Michael Caine cutting through the dense plot as Cutter, who devises for Angier the fussy machinery necessary to compose his illusions. Also helping Angier in that regard is real-life inventor Nikola Tesla, played here by David Bowie, who has a way with electricity that might just allow Angier to possess the sort of magic trick that even the gifted Borden couldn’t fathom.

Dividing the two men is Olivia, Angier’s magician’s assistant, who is played by Scarlett Johansson with precisely the sort of slutty zest she should have brought to her failed performance in the recent “Black Dahlia,” which wasted her. Nolan, on the other hand, uses her to great effect, and what we have in Johansson’s performance further ripens a movie that isn’t afraid to wallow in the occasional pool of melodrama.

Since the very title of the movie refers to slang for the third act of a magic trick – the payoff, as it were, in which the crowd is wowed – one will do well to listen to Angier and Borden when they ask those close to them and their audience whether they are paying attention. Essentially, they’re speaking for Nolan, who is busy priming his audience for his own prestige. When it comes, does it add up? Is it satisfying? For the most part, yes, though as with any magic trick whose devices have been revealed, learning the trick evaporates any possibility for real magic, which is something of a downer.

Since Nolan won’t allow for that, he closes his film with a controversial final shot that, at my screening, sent the sort of ripple through the crowd that any magician – or filmmaker, for that matter – would crave.

Grade: B+

On DVD

THE OMEN, directed by John Moore, written by David Seltzer, 110 minutes, rated R.

Its fresh crop of actors aside, John Moore’s remake of “The Omen” is a near duplicate of Richard Donner’s 1976 original, with a script by that film’s screenwriter, David Seltzer, employing exact scenes, dialogue and situations, and a directing style by Moore that mines the raw, choppy rhythms of ’70s filmmaking.

For fans of the first movie, this sort of carbon-copy filmmaking likely will seem redundant, if not unnecessary. But the movie isn’t without its pleasures.

Here, after all, is a horror movie whose intent isn’t to be just a mere gross-out, which is what the horror genre has become, but a horror movie designed to tell a story, which is what the genre has lost. For that reason, you appreciate it in spite of its shortcomings.

In the film, Liev Schreiber is American diplomat Robert Thorn, who is so distraught when he learns that his moon-faced wife, Katherine (Julia Stiles), has given birth to a stillborn child, he agrees to take from a questionable priest the healthy newborn child of a mother who just died in childbirth. Since the woman had no family, Thorn assumes the child as his own, not realizing that his new bundle of joy really is the spawn of Satan.

Five years later, Thorn has become U.S. ambassador to Britain and little Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is busy putting the “anti” in the Antichrist. Strange things start to happen. His nanny leaps off a roof in a shock hanging (“It’s all for you, Damien!”), salivating dogs seem to communicate with him, monkeys go bananas when he gets close to them, and what he does to his mother, well, it’s just not right.

The chief reason to see the movie isn’t for Schreiber or for Stiles, who are too young for the roles and have none of the chemistry of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick in the original movie, nor for Davey-Fitzpatrick, who is a pale, glowering blank slate. Instead, the reason to see it is for Mia Farrow, who is fantastic in the key role of Mrs. Baylock, the shady nanny with the kind face and the mean syringe who comes to live with the Thorns and care for Damien. Her genuinely creepy, reptilian performance is the film’s one flash of inspiration.

Grade: B-

Visit www.weekinrewind.com, the archive of Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s reviews, which appear Mondays in Discovering, Fridays in Happening, and Weekends in Television. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.


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