07 March 2007

The Prestige

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher & Jonathan Nolan

Grade: A-

It’s curious that 2006 should’ve seen two new movies about Victorian magicians, and they inevitably invite comparison; where The Illusionist was convoluted, The Prestige is concise; where the former was competently acted, to be nice, the latter is masterfully so; and while The Illusionist was pretty to look at, The Prestige has substance. But it wouldn't be fair to celebrate the virtues of Nolan's film only in contrast to the failures of its counterpart, as in years to come they will only be as connected in our culture’s collective memory as Harry Houdini is to Chung Ling Soo.

Early in the film, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) explains to a young boy, “the secret”—of an illusion—“impresses no one; it’s the trick you use it for.” Well, what a ruse the Nolan Bros. have in their hands. The three parts of a magic trick, explained in an opening voice-over by Cutter (Michael Caine), cleverly correspond to the three-act structure of not only this film but most traditional Hollywood films, although this particular film is exceptionally twisty--let's not forget that the word "prestige" comes from the Latin word for trick, praestigiae--as it unfolds within a particularly complex flashback narrative structure. Like a tempered Memento, The Prestige mostly moves forward dramatically by moving backward chronologically, as an imprisoned Borden reads Robert Angier's (Hugh Jackman) diary, which is mostly about Angier's reactions to reading Borden's journal, which he had stolen.

As struggling, up-and-coming prestidigitators, Borden and Angier are colleagues and chums soon transformed into obsessive adversaries after an accident, with possibly malicious undertones, occurs. Fingers are lost, legs are broken, bullets are fired but—most seriously—each other’s new tricks are sabotaged, stolen, or one-upped, always with pernicious results. Their rivalry is mirrored on-screen by the competitive enmity between Nicolai Tesla (David Bowie) and an unseen Thomas Edison, whose appearance on the film’s fringes, along with Cutter’s mechanical contraptions, seems to suggest something about the passing of mere legerdemain into the legitimate wizardry of technology, or the evolution of the sleights of hand of the stage into the contrivances of the cinema.

The picture is full of these kinds of doubles, not just in the oppositional foils but in its characters’ own dualities, expressed, for example, in the binary conflict between Borden as philandering performer and as loving husband and dutiful father, or in Angier’s disingenuous declaration to Olivia (a barely tolerable Scarlett Johansson): “I don’t care about my wife, I care about his [Borden’s] secret!” It suggests the bipartite nature of the artist—magician, actor, director, what have you—and of the film itself; identity is as much an illusion as the magic-acts.

Though ultimately passing away as a simple vindication of the pleasures of the general moviegoing experience, The Prestige is not without a confounding conclusion; just when I thought I had it all figured out, for as I said there are many twists, the Nolans blatantly—through another voice-over from Cutter—told me I didn’t. Well, did they really mean me? And so the Nolans leave off with one final trick: is it true, or are they just fucking with me? Was I not watching closely enough?

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