Everyone loves a good magic trick. Even the most jaded cynic can appreciate a moment in time when reality gets trumped by the mystical. But an underlying agreement exists between magicians and their subjects. Every trick, regardless of the complexity, is just that – a trick; elegant misdirection disguised as wizardry. Real magic is a frightening concept. Genuine sorcery is a realm of darkness where anything is possible, for a price few are willing to pay.
Director Christopher Nolan is no stranger to darkness. Nolan’s claim to fame was the noir masterpiece Memento, and he’s continued a trend of grimy mood pieces that reflect the dark underbelly of humanity. Nolan’s notoriety grew to meteoric proportions with his rebooted Batman trilogy, and I fear The Prestige has become a forgotten entry in Nolan’s back catalog. The film came out between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which explains the problem. This is a smaller movie in every respect from those event films, but I would argue that it contains more emotion, atmosphere, and intrigue than both of them combined.
Actors in London
The setting is 20th century London, though we’re never told as much. Nolan doesn’t chance yawns at the sight of an “1899” title card, but he doesn’t have to. We know what century we’re in at the sight of the first top-hat, and the setting evolves into one of the film’s greatest strengths. Turn-of-the-century England was a time when electricity was a novel concept, and where suspension-of-disbelief was still possible in minds untainted by post-modern suspicion.
The production design is flawless, captured in exquisite detail by cinematographer Wally Pfister. Rather than being encumbered by the traditional confines of period settings, Nolan breathes life into the environment, making it as expressive as any emotive actor.
Not that Nolan is in need of those. The Prestige features exceptional performances all around. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier respectively; two rival magicians ensnared in an unyielding desire to out-perform the other.
There are few actors more dedicated to their craft than Christian Bale. He dropped 60 pounds to play a skin and bones insomniac in The Machinist, then turned around and put on a six pack for Batman Begins. But he brings more to the table than physicality. Bale becomes his characters. That’s the goal of every actor of course, but not many are able to match Bale’s conviction. He is once again mesmerizing here as Borden. Playing a man torn in two by a devotion to greatness, Bale becomes the life of the film.
Not that Hugh Jackman is any slouch. This is one of Jackman’s most intriguing performances, because it’s also one of his darkest. Angier’s jealousy of Borden leads him down a dangerous path. He would sell his soul to be the better magician, and arguably that’s exactly what he does. I’ve never seen Jackman give a bad performance, and there’s not a single false note in this one, but there’s still something missing when juxtaposed against an actor of Bale’s caliber. Bale has an undeniable “it” factor. You can’t take your eyes off him. Perhaps there’s a difference between perfection and greatness.
The central theme bubbling under the surface of The Prestige is the destructive nature of obsession, and the emptiness at the end of its road. Character actor Michael Caine, in a quieter though no less effective role than his colleagues, tells Angier: “Obsession is a young man’s game”.
Borden and Angier are obsessed with both their craft and each other. They each have a shot at happiness, but they let it slip through their fingers. In the end, the costs outweigh the benefits.
David Bowie plays the famous scientist Nikola Tesla. He too is obsessed with his work, but he has long ago resigned himself to the consequences. He tells Angier in regard to his obsessions, “I am their slave, and one day they will choose to destroy me.” What an accurate description of idolatry.
The Prestige falls just short of masterpiece status in the final few minutes when everything is revealed. Nolan should have listened to the advice of his own character. At one point in the film, Borden shows a child how to do a magic trick. He sternly warns the kid not to give away the secret, no matter how much people beg, telling him: “The secret impresses no one.”
How ironic that the ending of The Prestige proceeds to give every last one of its secrets away, complete with flashbacks in case anyone still might be confused. The result feels like pandering to the masses. I have no problem with ambiguity as long as the mysteries are solvable – that encourages discussions and repeat viewings.
Nolan should know this, having already made the perfect enigma in Memento. Perhaps a nosy studio head got involved or Nolan himself had a moment of skittishness. Either way, the result is a flawed ending in an otherwise perfect film.
Thankfully, this is overshadowed by the showmanship and intelligence Nolan brings to the helm, like skepticism is discarded at the sight of a good magic trick. Nolan has proven himself time and again to be one the best directors working today. Last year’s Interstellar was another step forward in an incredible career. My hope is that Nolan’s continued success in blockbuster territory will shine a spotlight on his lesser known works.
The Prestige deserves to be seen and remembered as another incredible film from a director who has yet to make a bad one.