|Angier (Jackman) gives a show.
Last week, Alex of And So It Begins... was kind enough to invite me to participate in his post "The Polarization of The Prestige" for his Week of Nolan series. The piece I wrote was too lengthy and had to be trimmed, so I thought I'd post the entire thing for anyone who wants to read it.
A spoiler-free reasoning after the cut.
Out of all of Christopher Nolan's films, The Prestige (2006) is one that is often cast aside for films like Memento (2000), The Dark Knight (2008), or Inception (2010). Regardless of the spotlight not always shining on it, I love the film very much. It's packed full of themes that are a breeding ground for great drama and compelling mystery, such as love, betrayal, rivalry, greed, deception, invention, violence, obsession, sacrifice, and dedication. Of course, magic is at the forefront and the techniques of several tricks are revealed. Though the number of twists in this film is enormous, it remains absolutely stunning. The film is really a magic trick in its own right, and that's what makes it so intriguing, so fantastic. As great as the riddle is, the way Nolan puts it together is even better.
Nolan's film is loaded with slight of hand trickery, from the gotcha ending to the various clues spread throughout it. "Are you watching closely?" Bale's Borden asks at the opening. If you're not, you'll probably be fooled. And if you are, you still might be fooled. This is a mystery that is so complex that it is tough to characterize without giving away the ending. Everything is out in the open, but I saw nothing. Though all of the pieces are there, the details are so intricately woven that a first-time viewing is likely to frustrate. Even I was frustrated re-watching it. The (dare I say it?) genius of giving everything and still leaving a mystery to be deconstructed on repeated viewings is just fantastic. While major clues are in plain sight, they are taken for granted, so that the reveal at the end fooled me when I first saw it and still confounds me today. The ending simply blew me away.
|Borden (Bale) performing.
Unlike no other Nolan film, this a technically superb work that happens to be a period piece. Instead of trudging through the grim worlds of his modern stories, he places us in the past, with gorgeous costumes, beautiful production design, and a more pronounced lensing job by the now-regular Wally Pfister. This world is given a dark, shadowy look that enhances the smoke and mirrors aspect of the story. What strikes me most about the film is that, even without its multiple twists and turns, it is still a marvel. Whether you are a fan or not, the film is an immaculate production thanks to the great craftspeople at work. I love the look of this film, and it's completely in service to the story. It only adds to the mystery, which is why I appreciate the technical design of a film that's already got a great mystery going for it.
Borden and Angier's rivalry is a dynamic that is the most effective of Nolan's other attempts because it walks a fine line between hero and villain, between good and evil. These characters are not clearly defined as such, which is not as evident in Nolan's other work. A problem for some could be that the film does not offer a straight protagonist and antagonist. These men betray each other, and they each try to top the other in a way that goes beyond mere competition. I love this ambiguity, since it is just another element to misdirect the viewer. The lengths these magicians will go to one-up on each other is astounding. And if you think you know the villain at the beginning, just wait until the end. This battle of wills is not only essential to the narrative, but it also provides a tug-of-war throughout that doesn't end until the final scene. Due to this rivalry, the story never drags, as the magicians are locked in constant conflict. And this is instrumental in the twists that keep coming and coming.
Casting stars for Nolan hasn't been a problem since Insomnia (2002), and his choices here are as strong as any of his of his other ensembles. Hugh Jackman is the perfect showman, and Christian Bale is the perfect magician. One is flashy and dresses up his tricks, while the other creates a simple but mesmerizing act. Of the two, Bale outshines Jackman largely due to the part Bale's playing. More importantly, Bale's performance is one of things that makes this film so great. In a carefully-manipulated portrayal of a man living with a secret, he tailors his performance to the tough demands of the script, and he's so subtle it's almost too hard to dissect. He creates a character that is nearly impenetrable, which is just what the vast mystery of this story requires. Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis, and David Bowie round out a wonderful cast. And props to Jackman, who gives a great performance as the vengeful Angier. These performances are fine additions to this already thrilling narrative.
|Borden and Angier at odds.
Despite all of these characteristics, the chilliness of this film can be quite polarizing. These magicians are not so much unlikable, as they are unrelatable. Granted, Borden and Angier are two tortured men who have sacrificed greatly, seeking to outperform each other. But the emotional connection to these characters isn't fully realized. And why should it be? Borden is a man who wears many hats (so to speak), and Angier only wants to see his rival fall, to see him beaten. These characters are part of a puzzle, and the puzzle is the most important - and the most successful - piece of the film. Everything occurs at a distance here. We can't quite get in on what is happening until the very end. Despite the negative connotations of most of this paragraph, I say bravo to Nolan for that. He shows us everything, but denies satisfaction until the very end. The puzzle is so elaborate, yet subtle, that it renders this film an unforgettable entry in Nolan's filmography. It may not be as entertaining as other Nolan films, but it is one of his most complex ones to date.
Why do I like The Prestige? I like it because it's challenging, technically sound, and wonderfully put-together. The performances are attuned to needs of the material, and Bale's turn as Borden is one of the film's highest selling points. The magicians' rivalry gives way to the mystery, which continues to baffle me as to how Nolan was able to create such a puzzle. I mean on the screen, not the page. (After all, it is an adaptation.) The disconnect to these characters only adds to the trickery that is made plain before our very eyes. Try as I may, I don't know that I will ever fully grasp all of subtleties of this film, and I admire it wholeheartedly for that. It's a magic trick full of misdirection and ambiguity that remains a mystery. It dazzled me. It shook me. It fooled me. And I wanted to be fooled.