As if talking about what makes a film good or bad isn’t job enough, I’ve now been tasked with tackling The Prestige, which adds the realm of magic to the mix. Magic and movies are a lot alike, notably because some essence of the thing is inherently lost in the dissection. On one level, it’s disappointing to find out the magician’s secret: That’s all? He palmed the coin? He forced the card? Then again, I never was one to subscribe to Mark Twain’s sad belief that learning to pilot a riverboat robbed the Mississippi of its beauty; to me, learning the trick only enhances the showmanship used to pull it off. However, people are often tempted to carry that sense of letdown, of betrayal, over into cinema, especially when it comes to movies built upon misdirection and a killer twist, as with the works of M. Night Shyamalan or David Fincher. Similar complaints have been lobbed at director Christopher Nolan, who became a household name with Batman Begins but made his bones helming complex stories that defied linear narratives in pursuit of an emotional storytelling thread. Nolan made his debut with Following and then crafted Memento, two extraordinary little films that were long on imagination but short on presentation. But his success with the Caped Crusader has finally given Nolan license to wed the intricate stories he tells so well with the grand scale demanded by The Prestige, a tale of magic set in London at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a fantastic film, marked by nuance and a devotion to craft, but that’s damning it with great praise. No, like any good magic trick, The Prestige needs to be seen to be enjoyed.
Based on Christopher Priest’s novel and adapted by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan (who also wrote the short story that inspired Memento), The Prestige begins with Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), two low-level magicians working as shills for Milton (Ricky Jay), who each dream of becoming the star of his own show. Borden is antsy and reckless, anxious to push the envelope and show crowds something completely new, and he boasts of having such an ultimate trick to Angier and Cutter (Michael Caine), a technician who builds various apparatuses required for illusions. But that all comes later: Nolan first plunges us into the story in medias res, with an accomplished Angier performing a dazzling trick built around displays of electricity, not noticing Borden sneak backstage to discover the method of the illusion. A series of wrong turns puts Borden on trial for Angier’s murder, and he spends his days in prison reading a journal of Angier’s he’s acquired, at which point Nolan cuts back in time to Angier’s story. But it gets even better, or worse, depending on how much work you like doing at the movies: Angier has acquired Borden’s private diary, and in reading it thrusts us back to another timeline. The necessary ungainliness of that recap is no match for the fluidity and grace with which Nolan weaves between the threads of the story, unfolding events one glimpse at a time, matching the spirit of Priest’s largely epistolary novel.
Angier’s and Borden’s careers begin to bloom, but their rivalry is enhanced by Borden’s masterpiece illusion, The Transported Man, in which he steps into a cabinet and then instantly emerges from a matching cabinet across the stage. Consumed with discovering Borden’s secret, Angier begins obsessing over beating Borden, even going so far as to send his assistant, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), to work for Borden in order to spy on Borden’s performances and hopefully attain the key to unlocking Borden’s trick. Angier even travels to America to meet Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), whose pioneering work with electricity opens a door to a new kind of illusion that will do Angier both good and harm.
I know this is an awkward place to stop, or at least to change the subject, but that’s really all I can reveal in good conscience about the story. Its intricacies work much better in the moment, and attempting to parse them for the sake of a regurgitated logline would do the film damage.
As Borden, Bale exhibits the charisma he often brings to his roles but mixes it with a brave amount of distastefulness. Borden is a watchable and engaging character, brooding and temperamental, but it’s hard to root for him. Jackman, likewise, brings a weird energy to Angier, who starts out as the clear moral superior to Borden but whose consuming passions drive him to the gray middle of the ethical road. The two men, as is the case with the greatest enemies, are more alike than they’re willing to concede, each living a different brand of lie in order to become the greatest performer of their generation. Johansson is solid enough, but her accent occasionally wanders into murky territory. Still, playing a character who survives by her looks, she manages to hold her own, given the talented company she keeps onscreen. Johansson is pretty and popular, but not much of a standout performer. Then again, she’s pretty and popular, which I guess is all you need to have an acting career. Caine is on autopilot most of the time, doing a slightly altered version of the Alfred he played in Batman Begins: Sly, calm, saddled with a thick accent, and just hanging around for comic relief. It’s a shame he doesn’t get to do more than that, but Nolan’s focus never strays far from Bale and Jackman, who deliver in every respect.
In addition to reuniting with Bale and Caine, Nolan relies upon several crew members he’s used before, especially cinematographer Wally Pfister, who was responsible for the gorgeous grays and ambers of Batman Begins. Pfister plays with light and shadow so well it’s almost easy to overlook it, but there are some shots that are downright stunning, including a brief but beautiful scene in a whitewashed crypt. David Julyan’s score wrings the scenes for tension, and Nolan uses it to good effect, often broadcasting the result several minutes in advance and then letting you squirm in anticipation.
After the quick shots of whiskey that were Following and Memento, Nolan has finally allowed himself to take adequate time to unfold the story: The Prestige clocks in at more than two hours and is in no hurry to reveal any trick before its time. Nolan has necessarily altered several aspects of Priest’s novel, notably confining the action to a specific time period instead of stretching it into the present day. But he retains the story’s heart, particularly its surreal flirtations with the border between illusions and actual magic. Yes, the film is built on deceptions, and yes, it features a series of interconnected twists, but like all good movies and magic tricks, it doesn’t lose any glory in a repeated performance or viewing, only gains it.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.I Myself Have Found a Real Rival Within Myself
Film | October 21, 2006 | Comments ()