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The Prestige by Christopher Nolan (dir)
Review by Michael McGowan
Touchstone DVD  ISBN/ITEM#: B00005JPBR
Date: 20 October 2006 / Show Official Info /

No one should know the truth of this statement better than a writer or a director, and perhaps of all the working directors few should know this better than Christopher Nolan. Nolan is a rising star - 36-year-old Londoner who in the space of five years has gone from making Super 8 shorts and one art house indie picture that might never have reached a mass market to breathing new life into the Batman saga and getting to work with the likes of Michael Caine, Christian Bale, and Hugh Jackman all in one film. The movie that started all of this was, of course, Memento, a reverse-time brain-twister about a brain-damaged insurance adjuster who tries to avenge the murder of his wife even though his memory completely fades every ten minutes.

Half a decade later The Prestige serves as the more polished cousin of Memento's turn-on-a-dime cunningness. It's the same formula- a knotty intersection of people with secrets- some they'll kill for, some they'll die for - laid down for us in completely random strips that never provide a clear picture until the final piece is in place. When you think about it hard enough, this is pretty much what good storytelling is about - not a chronicling of events, but showing us one thing and hitting us over the head with another. And if what I've always believed is right, that a story is never as much about what happened than what went wrong, then Nolan's fable (based on the novel by Christopher Priest) of two turn-of-the-century illusionists whose bad blood translates into a protracted war of deception, sabotage, and plenty of real blood fits the definition quite nicely.

It starts with Rupert and Alfred, two struggling magicians in London, both under the tutelage and guidance of Cutter (Michael Caine), a kind of magician's "engineer" whose job is to make the flight of an illusionist's fancy into smoke and steel reality. When one of Alfred's (Bale) tricks results in the tragic death of Rupert's (Jackman) wife, it launches the two into a spiraling duel of one-upsmanship that eventually propels both into the ranks of England's finest stage wizards - if only because it provides each with bigger and more elaborate toys and ploys to humiliate the other with. For a movie that references its source material with only the most casual of passing nods, this is where The Prestige works the best - opening the windows and airing out Priest's parlor room stuffiness (in the book the rivalry between Alfred and Rupert feels more like a sissy-boy slap fight between two powder-wigged dandies) and turning the metaphorical war between the two magicians into a literal one, as each turn maims, threatens, or drops someone into a water escape box - locked, but with no key.

Since The Prestige is about magicians, and no doubt Nolan (who penned the script with brother Jonathan) has envisioned the whole thing as his Pledge and his Turn, his set-up for the same kind of gotcha reality check that was Memento's specialty, it's also the same kind of sleight-of-hand hocus pocus. Like any movie in this mode, one that depends on one surprise after another to keep itself going, it makes it a virtual minefield to describe in detail, which is fair enough. The feud between Alfred and Rupert eventually settles around variations of a trick called "The Transported Man," in which a man, simply, disappears from one place and appears somewhere else. The movie has a great time getting into the hard scrabble grist of how to pull off such a feat (happy landings!), however when Nikola Tesla (played by a surprisingly mannered David Bowie), the electrical genius who developed the alternating current and whose late work became the fodder for cultists and conspiracy theorists, shows up on the scene The Prestige takes its one step out of the box of simple stage tricks and into the realm of pseudo-speculative science fiction.

Or does it?

It is a hearty joy the way Nolan builds The Prestige to fold in on itself, to make every moment radiate with a deft uncertainty, like it's supposed to have a neon question mark hanging overhead. It's a high-minded head trip, something David Lynch might have made if he was transported back a hundred years after being put on some serious ADHD medication. Nolan doesn't spare the varnish - the close-up, dynamic camera, the overlapping narration provide the touch of a somber character study, so much so that when the more fantastic elements do arrive, it's either a stroke of genius or a distraction, depending on how well you think it's grounded by the movie's more humble trappings. And like Batman Begins, he gathers to the stage a troupe that just about screams professionalism, whether it's through Bale's playfully hip-deep cockney accent, Jackman's intense propriety (on loan from his stint as a nobleman in Woody Allen's Scoop), or Caine, in his most relevant role in years. Scarlett Johansson does a double-back on The Black Dahlia, once again the woman in between two men of festering obsessions and colliding loyalties. With Dahlia, at least Johansson had the goddess of the femme fatale to invoke. Here she's more of a fifth wheel.

If the coup de grace of The Prestige is not in the set-up or the execution, but in the payoff, then this is where it slips a little. If you look at it as a magic trick, it's one that isn't as sure of its misdirection to keep us from seeing gears and pulleys behind the curtains. A few of the twists are dead give-aways, some might seem better suited for a short on an early episode of Tales from the Darkside, but what is the same is that no matter their failings, you have to look at them the same way as Edward Norton's acts in the similarly-themed The Illusionist - that if you can spot a trick as just that, you should at least admire the moxie and skill in building it. Despite a somewhat languid start, The Prestige keeps a riveting hand on you throughout. Maybe you can spot the card up its sleeve. Maybe you know what happens to the bird when the cage collapses (just one word: ick). Or maybe you don't. Odds are you just won't care. B+

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