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Well it appears Oscar season is upon us. The release of all the films studios have been hiding from projectors until they can be freshly ingrained in voters’ minds has commenced. We had the obligatory Scorsese film a couple weeks ago and now we have the return of one of Hollywood’s new favorite sons (who also began with intelligent and original indie visions like Marty) with Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Known for uniquely dark and smart suspense thrillers, Nolan has crafted a tale of mysterious intrigue concerning two rival magicians vying to be the greatest to have ever lived. One is a performer of high esteem (Hugh Jackman), if not talented enough to create his own tricks, and the other a wizard with sleight of hand (Christian Bale) yet stoic and matter-of-fact with his audience. Obsession overcomes the humanity of each as they soon delve into the darkness of their core beings to prove themselves superior. If you truly wish to succeed, you must be willing to get your hands dirty.

I must say that I usually hate figuring out a movie’s secret before its’ big reveal at the conclusion. To say that Nolan has laid his out for all to see purposely might not be far from the truth. I hope he has done so consciously as it adds immensely to the film’s enjoyability. This is a film about illusion and tricks that can be explained if necessary. The beauty of magic, however, is the audience’s unconscious desire to never find out what really happened. As one character says in the film, it becomes so obvious once the trick has been unraveled. What a movie like The Illusionist failed to do was accept the intelligence of its audience. They tried so hard to hide the telestrated finale that when it finally happened you felt cheated. Nolan understands what is so appealing about illusion, we want to figure out what happens ourselves, to see the obvious and apply it to the cloaked result. He tells the tale like a magic trick, showing his hand the entire way yet still being able to keep the film suspenseful and enjoyable right to the final frame as we wait to see what direction we are led.

Bale and Jackman prove themselves to be the heavyweights that they are in the acting field. They embody their characters fully and are able to go from friendly comradery to bitter hatred throughout the course of this labyrinthine story bouncing from flashback to flashback. The rivalry is tautly told as they begin to discover a new layer of the other with each diary page turn, stolen from their counterpart. These are actors playing performers who have chosen a life for themselves, where they must act every single day. Their personas for stage and family are not the same, and this disparity helps to slowly destroy them both. Sacrifice and pain will always supercede love and happiness for a person driven to be the best at what they do.

Surprising applause goes to Scarlett Johansson for a performance that doesn’t try to be more than it is. She is not bad as a supporting character when there isn’t much for her to destroy. The half-smile/pursed lips look runs rampant, but doesn’t reek amateurism as it usually does when she attempts to carry a film herself. The true supporting roles, however, lie with Andy Serkis and David Bowie as assistant to and Nikola Tesla respectively. It is a real shame that Bowie doesn’t act more, as I have never seen a bad performance from him thus far after now five films. He embodies the mysterious enigma that Tesla was: a mad-scientist of sorts trying to help the world with his often-irregular ideas. It is also a pleasure to see Serkis not being just a prop like he has been as Golem and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s last two epics. The guy has some real screen presence and the ability to transform into whatever a director needs for his film.

It is also good to see Nolan go back to the inventive storytelling that he became noticed for. While not as intricate as his debut Following (told in a story pattern consisting of three timeframes going a, b, c, a, b, c) and his masterpiece sophomore effort Memento (told backwards in small chunks), The Prestige is not a straight-forward story like his last film Batman Begins or the lone-blemish on his resume, the inferior remake to a great Norwegian suspenser, Insomnia. The use of flashback, while both characters read the diary of each other, is a nice device which never feels gimmicky. These are stories of intelligent men and who better to narrate for the audience then the leads themselves as they narrate for each other. Dark thrillers don’t come better than this one very often and while the touches of science fiction and the supernatural may turn some realists off towards the film’s conclusion, I believe they work well within the confines of the world we are being shown. Every sacrifice taken is the obvious conclusion to its’ string of events, leading up to the final dénouement that will leave your minds in contemplation, not from confusion so much as an evaluation of your own ways of living and lengths you are willing to go, for hours to follow.

The Prestige 9/10

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photography:
[1] Andy Serkis, David Bowie and Hugh Jackman
[2] Christian Bale as Alfred Borden

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