Saturday, March 10, 2012
100 Movies - No. 71: The Prestige
Drama, Mystery, Thriller, 130 minutes
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson and David Bowie
Christopher Nolan takes chances in an industry which usually plays it safe. The Dark Knight was so much more than a comic book adaptation and Inception was not a typical blockbuster. These stories had mass appeal, but Nolan treated his audiences with respect. Both films have a complexity which is lacking in most popular movies.
If you go back to 2000 and take a look at Memento, you can see that Nolan has always believed that his audience was capable of figuring things out. One of his most complex films is The Prestige and I had to include it in this list. I've resisted the temptation to include multiple entries by one director for the most part, but Nolan is an exception because his films are so diverse. He's not using an established formula or focusing on one genre. In that respect, he's like a modern Stanley Kubrick.
Cutter (Caine) explains that a magic trick consists of three parts: The pledge looks at something, the turn alters that thing and the prestige is the payoff. One example would be seeing a bird in a cage (the pledge), seeing it disappear (the turn), and finally seeing the magician produce it from his pocket (the prestige).
The whole film plays out like a magic trick.
The Prestige is a complex story, set in Victorian England, with one significant twist and a number of minor surprises. It deals with the story of two rival magicians, Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale). Borden inadvertently ties a knot which results in the death of Angier's wife when she fails to escape from a tank of water. The ensuing rivalry lasts for the remainder of their lives.
The two both enjoy periods of success, but are continually striving to find the ultimate trick. Both men become obsessed with success and each has a deep desire to outdo the other. We are shown other magicians and learn that success often comes at a high price. It may even result in the magician keeping secrets off the stage which limit his personal freedom.
Eventually, Borden comes up with a trick that Angier can't figure out. It involves Borden entering a box on one side of the stage and emerging from a box on the other side of the stage moments later. He calls it The Transported Man.
In an attempt to come up with something even better, Angier visits Nikola Tesla (Bowie) in Colorado. As you may know, Tesla was an inventor who experimented a great deal with electricity. Angier asks him to build a machine which might be used in his act. Unfortunately, science is not completely predictable. Tesla delivers, but Angier has to be willing to pay a high price that goes beyond money.
I don't think I need to say any more about the plot. Bale's performance is superb and I think it's the best of his career. Jackman is also very convincing and the supporting cast is flawless. I'm always impressed by Rebecca Hall, but Bowie's cameo as Tesla was a revelation. Michael Caine holds the whole thing together and has important scenes at the beginning and end of the film.
Although the running time is in excess of two hours, you'll barely notice. There's always something important happening on the screen. What elevates this film to the level of greatness is its replay value. The first time you see it, you'll miss the relevance of some of the dialogue. On repeat viewings, you'll see how clever the screenplay is. The big reveal is hinted at in the first 20 minutes of the film and you'll smile when you realize what you missed. Like Scorsese's Shutter Island, events have new meaning when you see them with full knowledge of the facts. It's clever stuff.
If you like The Prestige:
I have already outlined the virtues of other Nolan films, so I'm going to suggest something else. In 2006, there was another movie about a magician released a few weeks before The Prestige. The Illusionist is different in tone and plays out like a romance, but the performances make it worth your time. Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel star.
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