Are You Watching Closely? The Prestige - 2/24

I’ve been watching the career of Christopher Nolan since the release of Memento blew me away back in 2000. I made sure to seek out Following, his earlier independent feature – and then I heard he was on tap to helm the remake of the Swedish film Insomnia for Warner Bros. Being familiar with the source material I was able to recognize Nolan’s contributions to the film and became convinced that here was a filmmaker to be reckoned with. His appointment to take charge of Batman Begins was an announcement that filled me with hope that someone at Warner’s had at last decided to treat the Dark Knight with the gravity he deserved. The result ranked up as one of the best films of 2005 and stands along side Superman: The Movie as the greatest film ever to be adapted from a comic book.

At some point, every director has to make that career misstep – the one film that doesn’t connect with an audience. Coming off The Prestige, we can rest assured that Nolan hasn’t slipped yet. In fact, The Prestige may be his best, most complex film to date.

The film tells the story of two rival magicians in 19th century London, the upper-crust American, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), and the working class Brit, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale.) A tragic accident sets them at each other’s throats early on, propelling them on a deadly game of one-upmanship and revenge. Borden, who is more adept at deciphering how on-stage illusions are designed, shocks his contemporaries by unveiling a new magic trick. The more accomplished showman, Angier desperately tries to work out the method involved, a quest that takes him to Colorado Springs in search of the inventor Nikola Tesla (a nearly unrecognizable David Bowie.)

I will tread carefully from here on out. You have been given the basic framework of the plot. It’s hard to go too in depth in any review with the risk of spoiling the film. As in his prior films, Nolan jumps around in the narrative seemingly at will, cutting from past to present to recent past, and relying on the voice over narration of two protagonists. The film itself works like a complicated magic trick; the director is working one on you while you watch.

One of the greatest pleasures in the film is the inclusion of the Tesla character and what he represents, and setting the film in the 19th century and on the cusp of a new electrical age. A man who can harness the power of lightning appears to hold the key to real magic, something magicians can only pretend to do. There is a subplot between Tesla and Thomas Edison that parallels the rivalry between Angier and Borden.

Unlike The Illusionist, the other recent 19th century magician movie, The Prestige relies on practical magic for its tricks instead of elaborate CGI creations, grounding the film in plausible reality that is indicative of Nolan’s style as a director (something that elevated Batman Begins beyond “comic book” adventure.)

The screenplay, by Jonathan Nolan (American born, judging by his accent in the DVD’s supplements) and Christopher Nolan (British born), based on Christopher Priest's novel, must’ve appealed to them on a number of different levels, especially it’s themes of duality and shifting identities. What they have produced is intelligent, literate and never pandering – inviting the audiences’ intellectual involvement every step of the way. The audience comes away from it with their minds still engaged even once it has ended. Nolan again employs his crack team of craftsman to deliver impeccable results in each department, including Wally Pfister’s cinematography (Oscar nominated), Nathan Crowley’s production design (also Oscar nominated), Lee Smith’s film editing and David Julian’s haunting score (re-united with the director after sitting out Batman Begins in favor of Hollywood heavyweights Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.) This is absolutely one of the best pictures of 2006.