The Prestige Reviews
Viewed from this perspective, The Prestige presents itself as an excellent counter-argument. Coming between the film which made him a big name in Hollywood and the film which immortalised him for a generation, this is a demonstration that Nolan can do small, intricate, character-driven pieces every bit as well as blowing up buildings. More than that, it's a reminder of how effective his approach to character construction can be - a reminder which is still scintillating after nine long years.
First and foremost, The Prestige looks fantastic. Wally Pfister's directorial ambitions to date may have come to little, but as a cinematographer he remains arguably the best in the business. Where so many period dramas have a cookie cutter feel, borrowing all too readily from either Pride and Prejudice or Barry Lyndon, Pfister and Nolan's vision of Victorian London is completely bespoke, at once modern and historic. Pfister achieves an excellent balance between the glaring bright light of the stage lights and Nikola Tesla's lightning with more velvety, textured tones and an effective use of shadows even in the darker scenes.
Rather than simply looking pretty, however, Nolan's version of Victoriana is steeped in what could poetically be called the mystery of modernity. Many period dramas seek to emphasise the antiquated, pastoral or reactionary tendencies of their time period, contrasting our busy, technology-driven lives with simpler, possibly more elegant moments in our history. The Prestige, by contrast, emphasises the modern, innovative nature of this world, focussing on the confluence between science and imagination. It puts the audience on the cusp of the greatest and most dangerous development of the age, leaving us in a permanent state of both unease and curiosity.
The Prestige is primarily a film about obsession, a trait which is reflected in multiple ways in the main characters. Like Guy Pearce's character in Memento, both Robert Angier and Howard Borden are romantically obsessive, the former for his dead wife, the latter for his estanged love and by extension his daughter. These obsessions merge with their natural competitive desire to outdo each other, which expresses itself in their showmanship to their audiencez and their increasingly ruthless desire to outdo one another.
Nolan is making a very clear point about class in this character dynamic, contrasting Borden's earthy yet often uninspired approach to tricks with Angier's aristocratic love of flair and panache. The death of Angier from this perspective is a nod to the declining social position of his ilk, and in the long-term the death of a particular style of theatrical performance. From this angle, one could liken it in a strange way to The Entertainer, with Angier filling the shoes of Laurence Olivier's Archie Rice.
But the final defeat of Angier also makes a point about the fruitlessness of obsession and competition. While Borden is able to confront his obsession, finally putting the needs of his family first and giving up his art, Angier remains a prisoner to the end; his constant desire to beat Borden, whether out of vengeance or spite, has left him a hollow shell. His trick wins over the crowd, but without the deeper love of his peers, his victory is meaningless and he dies a broken man.
It would have been very easy for Nolan to make a film in which two characters simply talk about how obsessed they are, intercutting this with glitzy set-pieces involving the tricks. But Nolan instead conveys the struggle through the characters, setting up the initial conflict and allowing the actors to deepen the characters as their obsessions intensify. The characters are defined by the ideas and themes that surround them, but their personalities are not restricted by either. And while the women in the film are dealt a slightly weaker hand in this respect, Scarlett Johansson and particularly Rebecca Hall are more than capable of holding their own in their given scenes.
The Prestige is also very much about perception, particularly about how magic and science can both challenge our accepted versions of reality. The magical aspect of this is pretty clear: most films about stage magic have long sequences about misdirection and sleight of hand. But The Prestige goes further than, say, The Illusionist from the same year, talking about the purpose of misdirection rather than just the mechanics of it. There are long discussions about the need to challenge the expectations of the audience, and the power that comes from causing people to believe the impossible.
Borden and Angier's search for this ecstatic moment in magic is mirrored by Nikola Tesla's experiments in the middle section of the film. The first glimpses of Tesla's arching electricity fells us with terror and dread - a feeling which turns to eerie wonderment during the light bulb scene and then Tesla's immensely cool entrance. From there we are taken on a journey through the frustration that comes with experimenting, and then the surprise and (albeit considered) elation of success.
The central lines of The Prestige are spoken by Tesla when Angier attempts to commission him to build the machine. When Angier claims that it is impossible, Tesla responds: "Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier, what you want is merely expensive". The words are both extremely confident and immensely cautionary, with Tesla's reluctance coming from the knowledge of where his innovation will lead. David Bowie plays him as the Cassandra of the piece, whose sad warnings fall on deaf ears; Bowie is perfectly cast and gives what may be his best all-round performance since The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Having given us memorable characters and a whole lot of substance on which to chew, Nolan completes his brilliant misdirection through twisty, non-linear storytelling. While the narrative structure is not as radical as Memento's, it does justice to the epistolary nature of Christopher Priest's source material, and by jumping around in time the audience is kept constantly guessing. Non-linear storytelling should never be viewed in gimmicky terms, with a film automatically becoming stronger if it uses it. It's a question of finding the right way to tell a given story, and this is the right way for this particular tale.
The Prestige is an excellent mystery thriller which combines strong characters with memorable storytelling and a series of fascinating, complex ideas. While it is perhaps slightly too long and a little too twisty for its own good in the last act, these are small, easily forgivable flaws in the context of a damn fine piece of cinematic craftsmanship. Inception may have since surpassed it as Nolan's best film, but it's still a fitting reminder of his skill with characters and the benefits of his storytelling methods.
Given that it's a Nolan film though, and that the subject matter is magic, illusion, and trickery, you can expect this film to not be straight forward or clear cut. I absolutely loved this when I first saw it, giving it 4 1/2 stars. Like Inception, I'm revisiting it, and I'm docking it, since it has lost some of its inital impact and wow factor, but I'm far less impressed with this one compared to the other. In fact, this might actually be one of his weaker films, at least in my opinion. Yeah, most people give that distinction to Insomnia, but that one doesn't really infuriate me like this does, mostly because I had ambiguity and trickery, and twist upon twist for the sake of it. I say that, and I love Inception, but that sort of thing didn't feel focred. Yeah, it was convoluted, but this is more so, and it sticks out here as really being forced due to the magic angle. I really should have expected this, but my original viewing was at a time before I'd really gone through all sorts of changes, and my tastes and views weren't as they are now.
I do dig this film, but the endings are an issue, well, one of them (the Jackman one). Didn't really accept that one so much this time. The other is fine, and I dig it, but it really felt like Nolan was being twisty and screwing around for the sake of it here, and it fell flat. I still like this movie though, as it is pretty well crafted, but it just overdoes things...too much, too often.
It's made clear from the beginning that this movie isn't about magic tricks. The screenwriter doesn't toy with the supernatural elements but cleverly invests most of the plot in character development. Director Christopher Nolan helmed this film after Batman Begins but right before The Dark Knight, so he had already set a tone for himself as a film maker by the tone at this time. This, to me, feels a lot like a 19th century Inception. What makes this film engaging to watch is seeing the rival magicians trying to outsmart each other. Christopher Nolan brilliantly balances his multiple time periods in this (much like Inception) so that a wary viewer won't get confused but is still in for a surprise in the end when the final card is laid on the table. He manages to juggle multiple subplots as well as mold the character psychology into the execution of the story, which in another's hands would become disjointed. The camerawork is purposefully shaky and the cinematography purposefully dark as to illuminate the story's tone and conflict.
The film is bolstered by powerful performances from its leading cast, who carry a lot of the weight here. It's Jackman in particular who holds the viewers' attention, managing to inject just the right amount of borderline psychosis that his character needs. The little exposition that there is in the story is mostly left up to him, as Bale's perspective is purposefully kept in the dark due to plot demands. He's not only easy to watch but riveting in his role as a man driven to madness by obsession, idiosyncratic in his performance and chilling as an afterthought. This is possibly the most psychologically dark performance he's given, which according to Hollywood is puberty for actors.
Gripping, disturbing, and with just the right amount of narrative complexity, The Prestige proves to be a thrilling and unique period piece that racks up another cinematic success for Christopher Nolan.