Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” is an interesting film in that I could tell you how it ends and yet in the act of watching it you would still have no idea what was going on. The first time I watched the film I was left decidedly baffled as to what I had just seen. Was it historical fiction of some sort? Science-fiction? Some combination of the two? And what exactly was the plot? — and yet I instantly wanted to watch it again. For those who are uninitiated let me explain the basic premise of the films title by quoting Michael Caine’s character, Cutter:
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called ‘The Pledge’. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called ‘The Turn’. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. 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 know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because 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 we call ‘The Prestige.'”
So, then, judging by its title, what can we assume this film to be? Simply put, the film is what it is about, that is: a magic trick. Now, don’t think I’ve spoiled anything, or revealed anything of an earth-shattering importance to you by telling you this; after all, when one goes to see David Copperfield what does one expect? Magic tricks, of course. So when one goes to see a movie about magic tricks, one should expect to see them. The funny thing is that in the opening scene of the film we are told this (in the text quoted above); we are told that the film we are about to watch is an illusion, and yet somehow we never realize, and somehow you will never realize.
Moving on to the film itself, we have to, in brief, discuss its structure and plot. First of all we have two magicians who are rivals; one is named Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and the other Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman); the two do not like each other and go out of their ways to ruin and sabotage the other’s stage performances.
One trick the two manage to become involved in is a classic in the school of the escape illusion; that being a pretty young woman (or sometimes the magician himself) is tied up, lowered into a glass tank filled with water, is then hidden behind a curtain and escapes from the tank. The film even outlines how the trick is done. It is this trick, the water escape, that will define these two men for the entirety of the film; a single performance of that trick is what drives them forward, towards a goal; what is their goal, you ask? To see who is the better magician, of course. To see who has the better trick.
The plot, while essentially very simple, is made complicated by the film’s structure. The plot is presented like this: Alfred Borden is reading the diary of Robert Angier, which is about Robert Angier reading the diary of Alfred Borden — you got all that? Essentially the film is structured to be a flashback within a flashback (cue Inception “bwoong”). This allows the film to leapfrog from one time frame to another in a surprisingly effective way. Now, that said, the first time you watch the film be prepared to be completely lost; this film is a maze, and unless you are willing to familiarize yourself with it you will likely leave the film discouraged, annoyed, and confused.
But this density with which the story is told is one of the methods Nolan uses to draw us into the plot, it allows us to see glimpses of things and yet not see the larger picture until Nolan is ready for us to see it. Nolan, much like David Copperfield or Harry Houdini, resists making the film simple so that it can work on the basic premise of its narrative conceit; that conceit being that the film is a magic trick. By structuring the film in this fashion Nolan potentially sacrifices the joy of the first viewing for what is an eye-opening experience upon the second.
It is rare to find a film as brilliantly executed in its premise as “The Prestige”, and it is even rarer to find a film that rewards multiple viewings the way this film does. I have my questions as to whether Nolan should be considered “a master” director or not, but with “The Prestige” he most certainly managed to create a masterpiece; the question is where he can go from here. He is finished with his Batman trilogy, and he has filmed his childhood dream project (no pun intended) with “Inception”; but where will his work go now? “Inception” while a fine piece of summer blockbustering, is child’s play in terms of narrative/thematic complexity when compared to “The Prestige”, which is one of the best films of the 2000s.
Also, in keeping with a trend in the posts on this blog, I feel the need to mention how wonderful the performances are. Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Hall, and Scarlett Johansson are all remarkable in the film; but the real star, is, somewhat surprisingly, David Bowie’s turn as Nikola Tesla. Bowie plays the character with a charm and intelligence that would have you believe he might actually be the real Tesla; were a biographical picture ever made of the great Tesla, Bowie would be the only logical choice to play the part.
Enter into your first viewing of “The Prestige” carefully, but enter into your second viewing of it open-minded, because it is then that you’ll be shown the real magic Nolan has offered us. I’m reminded of Georges Méliès when watching this film, because Nolan seems to fit into that style of filmmaking which is magic on celluloid; in the same way which Méliès made his actors, creatures and sets disappear and reappear on film, Nolan makes this film. But where the films of Méliès had a grin and a wink, Nolan’s film has a frown and a grimace; but if you’re anything like me, that being that if you love both magic and the cinema: you’re going to very likely wind up with a large goofy grin on your face — the second time you watch the film anyway.
I would attach the trailer of the film to this post, but it’s a rather horrid trailer and represents the film with a tone and style that were certainly not representative of this movie. I’m not sure what movie the trailer was actually meant for, but it couldn’t have been this one. Make no mistakes, “The Prestige” is a dark and twisted labyrinth of a film and should not be entered into lightly.
Also, because so few people seem to have ever heard of him (or think he was a fictional character made up for this film/the book it was based upon), here is the Wikipedia (laugh if you must) article on Nikola Tesla: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolai_Tesla
And while I’m at it, here’s the Wiki article on Georges Méliès: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_M%C3%A9li%C3%A8s
“Are you watching closely?”