Friday, December 11, 2009

Are You Watching Closely?: The Prestige

Originally, my Christopher Nolan retrospective was going to cover Nolan's films in order. Alas, Netflix sent me The Prestige (2006) before Insomnia (2002), so I've decided to cover the later film before the earlier. Somehow it seems appropriate, given the director's penchant for telling stories out of order.

I don't know that The Prestige is Christopher Nolan's best movie, but – unless Insomnia is far better than I've heard – it's his best trick. At first, The Prestige would seem to have very little in common with the gritty neo-noirs Memento and Following. The Prestige, after all, is a period film, the story of two British stage magicians and their attempts to variously upstage, harass, embarrass, and kill each other. The gaslights, horse-drawn carriages, and other turn-of-the-century trappings, however, don't do too much to disguise the story's essential darkness. The Prestige is another story about murder, duplicity, cruelty, and obsession.

The film starts very near its story's end, with Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) on trial for the murder of rival magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). We witness the apparent crime, but we don't gather its full significance until very close to the end of the film and we don't get full and horrifying confirmation of our suspicions until the very last shot. While the movie's final revelations are shocking, Nolan has provided subtle clues to them throughout the film. From the cryptic opening shot onwards, the script has readied the audience to accept some truly bizarre twists. Very few viewers will predict the plot's course, but all must admit that the clues are present and – in retrospect – almost shockingly obvious. Twist endings and shocking revelations have ruined many an otherwise decent film, but they serve The Prestige very well indeed.

Like Following, The Prestige often feels like a film without a hero. Neither of the film's two magicians is anything like a moral exemplar; we end up rooting for the one who happens to be less evil than his counterpart. Both protagonists hurt friends and family and commit innumerable acts of cruelty. Near the beginning of the film, Borden performs an illusion where he makes a bird and a cage disappear. The bird reappears and flies away and the audience applauds. We're impressed, until we see the secret to the trick: There are in fact two birds. One flies away at the end of the illusion. The other stays in the cage, which collapses and kills the bird. Before Borden and Angier's story ends, "magic" will have destroyed not just birds but people too.

Like the Batman films and Insomnia, The Prestige is an adaptation. Christopher Priest's original novel is an extremely good book, but not, I would think, great material for a film. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan have done a wonderful job turning the original material into something appropriate for a two-hour film. They've dropped the book's frame story, changed the relationship between the two protagonists, merged supporting characters, played up the romantic aspects of the story, and made crucial alterations to the ending. One plot change in particular – I can't divulge it without spoiling the film – makes the story far more horrific. The book and movie diverge in any number of places, yet their spirits remain the same. A more faithful film would have been a lesser one; the brothers Nolan understand that the story must be a creature of its medium. The cinematic Prestige is tighter and twistier than its literary counterpart; unlike so many adaptations, it can stand alone, without comparison to its precursor.

As much as I liked the adaptation of The Prestige, the script does have a few important flaws. I think that one character appears just a little too heroic at the conclusion of the story; we know he's a monster (sometimes), but the film lets us forget for just a few crucial (and sentimental) moments. Another character acts a little too villainously; I wish we had had just a few more scenes showing his moral decay. The plot fits together slightly better than the characters who act it out. There's nothing unbelievable in the context of the film, but one wishes there were more elaboration of motivation.

Of all Nolan's films, I think The Prestige may have the most interesting cast. Michael Caine, it's true, plays a role very similar to the one he plays in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. And yes, I suppose that Scarlett Johansson doesn't have that much to do besides look conflicted and fetching. Hugh Jackman plays Angier, the more refined of the two magicians; Bale's Alfred Borden is earthier and angrier. In some ways, it's casting against type: in most films, one thinks Bale would play the restrained protagonist and Jackman the looser cannon. Had Jackman and Bale switched their roles, I have no doubt that The Prestige would have been a fine and enjoyable movie. Yet the surprising casting works so well that I had to reevaluate the two actors – I was happily surprised. Despite its historical setting, only one real-life figure appears in The Prestige, the famous scientist Nikola Tesla, played by David Bowie, who gives a surprisingly low-key performance. Given all the crazy stories about Tesla – and his "wizard" role in the movie – Bowie could have been far more flamboyant and surreal. Bowie doesn't oversell his role, but he does bestow Tesla with the glamor and weirdness he doubtless possessed in real life. Bowie's Tesla isn't an unbelievable steampunk hero, but he's very clearly the possessor of arcane wisdom.

The Prestige is one of my favorite Nolan films. Here at last he's perfected his non-linear storytelling and his tricky plots. Nolan, a great believer in misdirecting the audience; doubtless, he feels kinship with his magicians. In their years-long fight, Borden and Angier, after all, employ just the sort of ploys that Nolan loves. Rarely have I seen a director so well-matched with his subject. Memento, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight remain the best-known of Nolan's films; it's a shame this movie doesn't share their fame. It's better, I think, than two of those three movies.

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