Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Look on Their Faces: Some Thoughts on "The Prestige"

This is a revised version of a review I posted on another blog in the summer of 2010- Spoilers Follow

I think Christopher Nolan will always be closely associated with the Batman mythology due to Batman Begins, its sequel The Dark Knight, and of course the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises. This isn’t a bad thing; the first two films are two of the finest superhero films of recent memory. Nevertheless, I feel The Prestige, along with Memento and Inception, are the films that I believe epitomize his interests as a director. Nolan likes narratives which work as puzzles, both literally and existentially.  Some dismiss his films as gimmicks and nothing more. I disagree.  Once the films reveal more about themselves, the viewer can find genuine depth, thematically and emotionally. In this review I want to focus on The Prestige.  This was Nolan’s first film since Memento where he was fascinated with creating a puzzle narrative. His previous two films were Insomnia, the remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, and of course Batman Begins, his biggest and most ambitious film at the time. The Prestige came out the year after Batman Begins. It was a good film to do before embarking on another Batman adventure. In some respects, despite the intelligence and craftsmanship of Batman Begins, Nolan needed to do a film which stood apart from any franchise expectations, to remind audiences who he was as a director.
The Prestige is an elegant and atmospheric film. It puts us into what is both an authentic and yet slightly stylized version of the Victorian era. I had a similar reaction to what critic A.O Scott felt about Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.  He said the film captured the time period not exactly as it was, but as a heightened version of itself. Nolan and Wally Pfister, his cinematographer since Memento, create a look that immediately draws the audience into this world. You want to look at everything in detail, particularly since the opening line of the film is “Are you watching closely?”

 Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are the two magicians at the heart of the film. They represent the kind of protagonists which inhabit Nolan’s films. They are obsessive in regard to their profession and occupy a morally grey area. Jackman and Bale give very strong performances, creating two unique individuals that are always compelling. The last time I watched the film, I found myself more interested in the secret behind Borden’s identity, which is a twin brother- and his life with Sarah (Rebecca Hall), particularly with Sarah’s knowledge of when Borden actually means that he loves her and when he doesn’t.  The brother who does not mean “I love you” is the brother who eventually falls in love with Olivia (Scarlett Johansson). Sarah’s intuition works as a clue: both plot-wise and emotionally.  On repeat viewings these scenes carry even more emotional weight than they do the first time one views the film.
Borden seems to be the protagonist of the film. Unfortunately, the film seems to decide on this a little too late.  I want to focus on a moment that is simultaneously a little too obvious yet supports Borden is the protagonist. It’s when Olivia gives Angier Borden’s diary. She wants to get it back to Borden’s shop before he knows it’s gone but Angier needs to figure out how he does the transported man. Olivia tells him it won’t bring his wife back, to which Angier responds, “I don’t care about my wife, I care about his secret.” That moment seems a little bit too obvious, almost as if the film was trying too hard to say Angier had become an obsessive. Still, Jackman’s look of regret at his words saves the moment from being too shallow. It supports that Borden is the protagonist. Borden’s love for his daughter and Sarah, and the other brother’s regret for Sarah’s death, contrasted with this moment with Angier, emphasizes the ultimate difference between the two men. By the end of the film Borden can still deeply care for the people in his life, whereas Angier’s obsession with being the better magician trumps his anger towards Borden for possibly killing his wife. Angier’s speech at the end of the film about the look of wonder on people’s faces when an illusion is performed is one of the film’s finest moments because it both humanizes Angier and shows how much he has lost his humanity. The only people in his life who matter are the audience.

Another reason why Borden is the protagonist of the film is that, as some have pointed out, his trick does not cheat, and Angier’s does. Borden’s trick involves using an actual twin, whereas Angier goes outside the normal constrictions of doing illusions by using Tesla’s (David Bowie) machine. Many view the science fiction element of the film as a cheat; yet they may not consider the idea that the audience is supposed to take this a cheat, to see that while Angier is a great showman, Borden is the better illusionist. I also feel that Tesla and his machine are introduced early enough for the audience to have the seed planted that something beyond the realm of traditional Victorian era magic is afoot.  Moreover, if one takes the film too literally as a magic trick, one that has to have a rational explanation, then one misses the larger theme of science as a new form of magic. I also feel the sci-fi element actually goes well with the Victorian era setting; the film can possibly be seen as homage to H.G Wells or Jules Verne.
I think if the film had focused more on the themes of science and the Tesla character then it would have been an even stronger film, one that is clearer about the relation between scientific magic and illusionist magic. As it stands, The Prestige is still an effective mood piece, and on repeated viewings it becomes more than just a fascinating puzzle. It’s themes of obsession in terms of being the greatest magician relate to the issues of how far people go to be famous today. This, coupled with its horrific view of how science can fuel these obsessions, makes The Prestige a very contemporary film.

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