The Prestige (2006)
“Are You Watching Closely?”
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson
Synopsis: The rivalry between two magicians becomes more exacerbated by their attempt to perform the ultimate illusion.
Early on in The Prestige, Cutter (Michael Caine), an engineer of magical tricks, explains to a little girl — and the audience — about how a trick is comprised of three parts. The first is the pledge, in which the magician shows the audience something ordinary; the second is the turn, when the magician performs some out-of-the-ordinary feat, and the final part is the prestige, during which the magician returns things to normality. The narrative structure of Christopher Nolan’s movie The Prestige adheres fairly closely to this format, but while he enthrals us with his first two acts, the third left this member of the audience, at least, feeling just a little deflated.
Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play Alfred Borden and Robert Angier respectively, two 19th Century magician’s assistants who pretend to be members of their boss’s audience, called up onto the stage to bind his glamorous assistant, who also happens to be Angier’s wife, before she is lowered into a glass cage filled with water. Usually, the stunt goes without a hitch because the knot is one which is easily loosened and the girl is quickly able to free herself, but on one particular night, after Borden’s suggestion that they change the style of knot is rejected, she is unable to free herself and drowns before the stunned audience. Borden claims he can’t remember which knot he used to tie the girl, and the incident triggers a long-running rivalry between the two former friends. Over the years, the two men experience contrasting fortunes, with Angier enjoying great success, while Borden fails to progress, largely because he has no stage presence or style. But one day, he presents a trick called The Transported Man which flummoxes both his audience and Angier. Unable to figure out the secret to Borden’s trick, Angier enlists the aid of scientist Nicholas Tesla (David Bowie) to come up with a device to top Borden’s trick…
The Prestige is a dark and sombrely twisted tale of obsessive rivalry between two men whose entire existences revolve around secrets and lies, and are essentially an illusion. The movie is filled with foreshadowing, and nothing is ever what it seems, and Nolan, writing once again with his brother Jonathan, creates a closed, intriguing world in which each man’s obsessive pre-occupation with the antics of the other threatens to consume each of them. Their lives mirror one another’s in a key way which, if revealed here, would spoil the picture for anyone watching for the first time, and while the picture draws us in on a rolling tide of intrigue, the wave ultimately crashes like, well, like a trick without a prestige…
The problem is that the movie’s big twist pushes it firmly into a fantastical never-never land, relying on a hackneyed plot device which, while hinted at by reference to a briefly seen Chinese magician, throws up too many questions to provide a satisfactory conclusion. Loose ends abound, but Nolan does create some interesting conundrums regarding the possibility and consequences of dual consciousness, and an unexpected slant on parallel lives that should sustain a thinking audience beyond some glaring plot holes. But, then, misdirection is the art of the magician, and Nolan does at least keep us guessing for a long time. It’s just a shame that he failed to take into consideration the fact that the trick is always more impressive when you don’t know how it was pulled off.
Despite this not inconsiderable flaw, The Prestige provides an insight into a world that’s rarely explored in the movies. Regular Nolan acolyte Wally Pfister’s cinematography lends an evocative atmosphere, expertly complementing Nathan Crowley’s impressive set design, and recreates the era without romanticising it or trying to depict it as some squalid slum despite much of its action taking place in dreary working class locales. The cast also contribute to the impressiveness of the production, with a largely non-British cast for the most part coping admirably with a British accent. There’s a lot to admire, then, but it’s just a shame that final act feels too much like the cheap plot manipulation of some Victorian penny dreadful…
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