I previously stated in my review of Interstellar that Christopher Nolan’s films are sometimes a bit of a problem for me. Initially I’m wowed by them, but revisiting them later leaves me cold. While that happened to me with Inception, I’m glad that The Prestige held up better. The cast isn’t as expansive so we can get into the character’s heads more, and while the plot is just as confusing, ultimately I’m admiring the twists and turns more in this one.
The Prestige is the story of two rivaling magicians. After a trick goes wrong one night and Robert Angier’s (Hugh Jackman) wife dies, he blames his colleague Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). The two part ways, and begin a person and professional rivalry that consumes both of them. Borden starts to make a name for himself with an act called “The Transported Man,” the secret of which Angier wants to steal for his own show. To this end, he sends his lovely assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) undercover to find the answers, and discovers that they might lie with Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). Olivia and Cutter (magic trick designer, played by Michael Caine) get caught in the middle of the feud, which has disastrous consequences.
The film’s main feature is its story structure, which I can’t really get into without spoilers. Without spoilers, the film still has a lot of thematic depth, mostly involving the sacrifice the two magicians make. Suffice it to say that both give up a considerable amount of personal integrity to be the best magician, and eventually it’s hard to tell if the magic is motivating them or the feud is. It’s clear about halfway through that Angier’s wife’s death is just an excuse to start their rivalry. There’s also a great commentary on what magic is; do we want it to be real or do we want to admire the skills it takes to pull off the illusion?
The other interesting aspect of this film is the parallel character study. It allows the audience to compare and contrast Jackman’s and Bale’s characters alongside each other. While most of what makes them different is revealed at the end, you can see the seeds of their differences sewn at the very beginning of the film. Borden is more focused on the technical innovations of magic, pushing himself to invent the next greatest trick. Angier on the other hand is more interested in performing, generally Cutter designs his tricks and he sells them onstage. These differences in how they approach magic, life, and the balance between them only deepen as the film goes on.
This is my second viewing of The Prestige, and one can almost appreciate the film more the second time around. It’s just as enjoyable either way whether you know what’s going to happen or not, but I had a higher opinion of the film’s quality when I could see how they were setting us up for the final reveal at the end. Every time a certain character is shown you can see how they are setting you up for the end, but at the same time you can see how you wouldn’t pay attention to this character or his existence the first time around. There is also a part where a character in the film figures out what’s going on before the audience that also has you kicking yourself. What I like about this film in comparison to Inception is that with Inception I gave up trying to figure everything out pretty quickly, but with The Prestige it is actually do-able. The genius is in how they do it, not the actual twist itself (which is still pretty cool).
The Prestige just may be my favorite Nolan film, but we’ll have to see because I still have his early ones to watch. The story is inspired, the acting is good, and the costumes and production design are lovely, almost steam punk. Nolan’s not really doing anything to showy with the camera, but then again, he never really seems to. It’s not a perfect film, but I still really enjoy it and appreciated how well it held up on a second viewing.
“Are you watching closely?”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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