As a devout Christopher Nolan fanboy, one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made in my meaningless life was choosing which Nolan epic I would review first. If you have read any of my first two Top 10 Lists, you’ll know I have a particular affinity for “The Dark Knight”, however “The Prestige” was streaming on my flight home from New York the other day so the decision sort of made itself. (The person next to me vomited on me during the landing so hopefully that wont play into my reactions.)
“The Prestige” is a film about two dueling magicians who engage in a rivalry of fantastic showmanship and obsession. Robert “The Great Danton” Aniger (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred “The Professor” Borden (Christian Bale) begin the film as understudies to Cutter (Michael Caine) and each progressively try to outdo each other with newer, more ambitious illusions. But what starts as trying to best their rival, snowballs into different forms of sabotage and aggression, where victory must be achieved at all costs, even if they cannot rise to the occasion with their own tricks.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is that it follows its own rules to illusions. Nolan takes a partial non-linear approach to telling this story. We are given flashbacks and cutaways, and while it is obvious that they all aren’t happening at the same time, we aren’t truly told which happened first until the third act. But there is enough information available that you could piece together the tricks of the mind he is pulling, but only if you knew what to look for. Just like a trick in the film, the audience is misdirected with flashier details to conceal how the true “magic” happens. When I write this, it sounds cheap, but in reality, it is the very point of the film. Nolan creates a movie about magic by using magic.
We are told from the beginning that Borden is on trial for the murder of Angier as part of a sabotage-gone-too-far, and Cutter is forced to tell the judge all about the two men and the ridiculous contraptions they used to create their illusions. Michael Cain has a way about him that when he explains something, it always sounds deep and enchanted, making his casting as a man who creates magic tricks for performers a brilliant choice.
The two leads are brilliantly acted by Jackman and Bale. I find it humorous that Jackman is presented as the morally superior protagonist to Bale’s backstabbing antagonist when in reality, both of them are so far detached from humanity and lack any semblance of empathy. Both perform dubious, petty, and likely illegal acts on each other to get the upper hand, but goddamn if Jackman isn’t a charming bastard, I do not know anyone else who is. I mean, he kidnaps and buries a man alive to get a diary that doesn’t belong to him and it is just brushed over like it is nothing. But he does it all so handsomely.
As far as character building goes, both leads have enough personal connections to make their motivations understandable before they totally go off the deep end. Borden accidentally killed Angier’s wife during a trick, and Angier shot off Bordon’s fingers. The only sensible way to get through that is with stage magic. Perhaps it is the point all along to watch them go from reasonably motivated to clinically psychotic to show just how consuming and competitive the world of magic is, or more realistically, how powerful obsession can change who you are as a person.
The film relies on two major twists in what manifests into reveals of who the two leads pulled off their greatest tricks, and personally, only one really works for me. Both provide a decent experience within the film, but only Borden’s trick is truly revealed to be clever and reasonable within the world that is setup. Not that Angier’s isn’t fascinating, but it changes our understanding of what we thought was allowed about midway through the film, which leaves an unsatisfactory taste in my mouth. While we are provided with more information with regards to the story of how Angier learned his trick, which includes a fun performance from the late David Bowie as Nikola Tesla and the rare Andy Serkis character not in motion capture pajamas, it does not show us how Angier out planned Bordon, rather how he just made his own rules.
And perhaps that is why Bale’s Bordon is more compelling to me as a character. Throughout the entire film, he is presented as the magician that is willing to take more risks and has a far more astute eye for magic. He does not need assistance in creating his master trick, whereas Angier does. It just seems that he is always a step ahead of Angier, and whereas he is at his best when he uses his brain, Angier is at his best when he puts on a show. And even when it appears he lost because he is in jail for Angier’s murder, the film makes you aware that maybe he is still in control of the situation.
Unfortunately, there really are not any compelling females in this film. Scarlett Johansson’s Olivia Wenscombe gets the most screen time and she has a convincing enough British accent, but she, like every other woman in the film, is just a prop for the male leads to use for motivation or a side love-story that will ultimately end in betrayal and really takes away from the story. Minor roles are important but I believe she could have been more versatile than she was, especially since they began to tease her as someone with a deeper understanding of performing, but do not really build on it enough for anyone to care. Instead, she is just a seductive object that the two magicians use to put on a magic show, which is a big disappointment.
What “The Prestige” comes down to is entertainment. It is a film about two showmen who do in fact, put on quite the show for their audience. The stories of competition and obsession are compelling, but the film’s legacy is built on its display of magic and wonder. It’s ability to make you feel as though you are sitting in the stage theater with the on-screen audience is alluring and most perfectly encapsulates the mystic that Nolan was trying to create. It is not perfect but it is objectively good and everyone watching will be thoroughly interested and mystified. What more can you ask for from a film?
I would rate this film a decent 8.1 out of 10
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Cain, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Andy Serkis
Runtime: 2 Hours 10 Mins