Too Much Sleight of Hand
The last time Christopher Nolan directed a script written by his brother Johnathan, one of my favorite films emerged in the form of the backwards-forwards mystery narrative, Memento (2000). They have reunited to bring an adaptation of the award-winning novel, The Prestige, to the big screen, and have done so quite grandly. Those familiar with their previous work will appreciate the disjointed narrative, rich characters, and interesting premise. Too bad they didn’t know how much was too much.
Magician assistants Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) have become bitter rivals after a horrible “accident” separates the two. They both aspire to the greatest magic trick ever conceived, especially if it is at the expense of the other. This trick comes in the form of “The Transported Man”, an illusion that allows the performer to disappear from on side of the stage and instantly appear at the other. First performed by Borden, obsession leads Angier to discover the secret and better his opponent. Both men will go to any extreme to win this contest of one-upping, even to the destruction to all those around them and even themselves.
The Nolans have created quite an elaborate tale. Set in Victorian England, The Prestige oozes gothic atmosphere. Adding to this is a very detailed script, that is constantly moving back and forth through time between the two lead characters. All the characters are nicely fleshed out, and we feel as if we know these people pretty well, even if we don’t like them all that much.
The actors are all fun to watch. Bale and Jackman (Batman vs. Wolverine!) are very good at what they do, and I am a big fan of the latter--he has proven over and over that he can play anything. There are also some nice supporting turns by the great Michael Caine (The Weather Man) and the luminous Scarlett Johanssen (The Black Dahlia). David Bowie even has a nifty cameo as real-life scientist Nikola Tesla.
So what’s not to like here? Well, my main issue with The Prestige is that it’s one of those “twisty” stories that is over-determined to keep us guessing. Just when you think you’ve figured out what twist is coming, it twists back upon itself. This is fun at first, but it happens so often (the movie has something like five false endings) that it alienates the viewer. You just stand back, and stop trusting the film to play fair.
It is still a worthy effort, however, and is big and audacious in its storytelling. In retrospect, I don’t buy everything that played out on the screen (which of course, I can’t reveal without giving crucial information away), but it was fun, inventive, and different. I just wish the Nolans would have trimmed the number of rabbits they felt had to be pulled out of their respective hats.