Director: Christopher Nolan.
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan.
Starring: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Andy Serkis, Piper Perabo, Ricky Jay, Roger Rees, Jamie Harris, Samantha Mahurin, W. Morgan Sheppard, Daniel Davis, Edward Hibbert.
“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled”
Having delivered such strong films as Memento, Inception and Interstellar (outwith the hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy), it’s safe to say that director Christopher Nolan’s output is of a very high standard. Many may even claim that he’s yet to make a bad film and that his filmography is nothing but quality. For me, though, The Prestige is an exception to that and a major blip in an otherwise solid résumé.
At the turn of the 19th century, celebrated stage magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is accused of the murder of Julia McCullough (Piper Perabo), the wife of his partner Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman). Her death happened during a magic trick but Angier puts the blame solely on Borden. As a result, the pair become rivals and a bitter feud takes place between them as they try to sabotage each others tricks with dangerous consequences.
As the film opens, we are informed that every magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge” where the magician shows you something ordinary. The second act is called “The Turn” where the magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary (like disappear). But making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part that’s called “The Prestige”. And so the stage is set for Nolan’s stylish and elaborate sleight of hand. He adheres to this magicians three act rule in the films structure but it’s the hardest act (and the one that shares the film’s title) that actually undoes the whole affair.
In saying this, it would suggest the film is let down solely by it’s reveal. It’s not. From the outset the film is very slow and tedium sets in very early. I don’t have a problem with slow builds and I’m actually very fond of a good magic trick. Nolan’s premise is very enticing and having two warring magicians play against each other should make for gripping entertainment. Only it doesn’t. It’s a laborious and excruciatingly dull endeavour which is very surprising considering it’s Nolan in charge.
With films of this kind, you know there will be an attempt to pull the rug from under your feet. That’s a given and given Nolan’s track record of being more than able to deliver a good twist, you expect that you’re in safe hands. However, it reaches a point where it’s just one preposterous plot twist after another with the ultimate misgiving being that Nolan doesn’t capture a sense of wonder. It’s difficult to accept the plot developments when you know that it’s all just elaborately staged for the sake of it. It’s like trying to convince the viewer that CGI is actually real. There’s no way your going buy it and this film is as similarly unacceptable as that preposterous proposal. As for the final reveal, when it actually happens, it just stinks. It’s a ludicrous revelation that’s so tenuous that it’s practically impossible to work it out and left me with feelings of frustration. Maybe this was Nolan’s intentions all along but, to me, it felt like a con.
Granted, Nolan has a good eye for the period and his regular cinematographer Wally Pfister does some beautiful work in capturing the Victorian era amidst Nathan Crowley’s impressive production design. To the eye, it certainly looks the part but really the appearance is all smoke and mirrors. There’s really no consistency underneath it all.
Even having the charismatic leads in Bale and Jackman should work in it’s favour but the film never really knows who to fully focus on at any given time leaving the development of their relationship – and their own identities – a bit of a muddle. It’s hard to know which one to root for as their character arcs are continually blurred and messily delivered.
From what I can gather, I’m in the minority with this one. Many critics and viewers have lavished nothing but praise on it but I fail to see what the attraction is. As I’ve said, the three act structure is undoubtedly on show; we are offered the “pledge” and it delivers the “turn” but Nolan’s reveal simply doesn’t work, leaving the final product lacking the “prestige“. Which doesn’t say very much for a film that can’t even live up to its own title.
Trivia: The main characters’ initials spell ABRA (Alfred Borden Robert Angier), as in Abracadabra, a common word used by magicians.