VOD film review: The Prestige
James R | On 03, Sep 2020
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Michael Caine, Andy Serkis
“Are you watching closely?” That’s the opening question in The Prestige, a bold challenge to the audience from a filmmaker who loves to play with perception and expectations. If that make Christopher Nolan’s interlude between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight sound like an exercise designed solely to please himself, you’re not entirely wide of the mark, because this is a film rooted in the mysteries and tricks of magic – and Nolan as a filmmaker is in thrall to art of illusion.
Based on Christopher Priest’s novel, it whisks us back to Victorian London, where two magicians begin a fierce rivalry. On the one hand is Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), a man who is technically greater than his opponent. On the other is Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), a man who is is the greater showman. Both elements are crucial to a successful trick – if you don’t dress the illusion up enough, audiences won’t buy it, but even as you give them reasons to doubt and wonder, you must still be one step ahead at all times.
The Prestige’s one flaw is that it doesn’t always manage the last part, as its twisting, turning screenplay (by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan) drops too many hints to the audience as to what’s actually going on before it’s revealed – a mistake that they can never be accused of doing again in Inception, Tenet or even Interstellar. But the showmanship of it all is where Nolan’s drama really succeeds: this is him at is most dazzling in many ways, as he and DoP Wally Pfister use sumptuous colours and dramatic lighting to bring grandiose locations to life. It’s a theatrical piece in all senses of the word, giving us a glimpse of Nolan as passionate ringmaster more than clinical storyteller. (That this is his only film to date based on a novel is perhaps telling.)
It’s fitting, then, that even if you manage to decipher the layered illusions at play, The Prestige always works as a character study: what begins as a daring demonstration of misdirection evolves into an engaging, moving tale of two men who are driven to outdo each other. Christian Bale works twice as hard as anyone to bring a conviction to his glowering, intense outsider, while Hugh Jackman brings a vulnerability and tragedy to a desperate loner willing to sell his soul to achieve his ends. Between them are a roll call of talent, from an underused Scarlett Johansson to a scene-stealing Rebecca Hall. David Bowie is perfectly cast as the otherworldly, mysterious and uncompromising inventor Tesla, backed by Andy Serkis as his eccentric assistant.
Woven into the bitter machinations that join them all is a growing theme that magic can only be achieved through sacrifice – a theme elegantly espoused by Michael Caine as ingenue Cutter, who is the best man-behind-the-magician since Jonathan Creek. There is a sad paucity of films that deal with stage magicians (the two most notable are unfortunately both called The Illusionist), but The Prestige delves into the grim realities beneath the hope, wonder and spectacle; this is more about guilt than making tiny birds disappear, and that haunting focus is what impresses, more than the chronologically playful structure.
“You’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it,” Caine’s romantic weaver of stories taunts us. “Because you don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.” As the tale of men performing the impossible threatens to venture into full-on sci-fi territory, The Prestige’s secrets aren’t as elusive as it might think, but its human truths deserve our gaze nonetheless.