Movie Review #35 / 250 : ‘THE PRESTIGE’

Erm.  Abra… cadabra?  I know, I know.  I’ll get me coat.

Christopher Nolan.  If you recognise the name, he’s very quickly become quite the cult director in the past ten years, having helmed the Batman reboot Batman Begins and its sequels The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (out July as far as I remember), and everybody’s favourite kaleidoscopic-dream-hopping-adventure Inception (it’s on the list).  He also directed The Prestige, which is full of his trademark confuddling plot twists and closed-book characters (and Michael Caine).

Nolan films aren’t everybody’s cup of tea.  They require a lot of attention, and, surprisingly, quite a bit of coherence.  If you miss one or two slight touches or turns in the entire movie, you’ve blown your chance of appreciating it to its fullest.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The Batman reboots have been lavish and multi-layered as a result, and Inception was in IMDB’s top 5 movies ever for an extended period.  But, digressing.

The Prestige is essentially the continued one-upmanship between two rival magicians (or illusionists, though ‘real magic’ as opposed to ‘illusion’ is discussed several times here – whether you like it or not), played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.  It all takes place in Victorian England, where the hats are lofty, and the accents are either plummy or missing their ‘H’s.  The dominoes start to fall when Jackman’s wife is killed in a trick where it’s unclear if Bale was responsible – but consumed by grief, Jackman chooses to make it his life’s work to outdo Bale, while Bale similarly gives as much as he receives.

That’s pretty much your plot.  There’s not much to it other than that, and that’s probably a good thing.  There is an intense amount of detail added into the tricks, the scheming and both the politics and ‘religion’ of what it means to be a practicing magician that fill up the plot, and Nolan’s trademark twisting and turning about all over the place work really well here.  Sometimes, such depth and such convolution comes off as smug or conceited – and in some places, Prestige is very conceited – but as we’re dealing with tricksters, we as the audience surely don’t mind being tricked ourselves.  Do we?  I didn’t.

This is a very angry, brooding film with very little in the way of joy for its characters, but I guess that’s not really the point here.  It’s all about the spectacle, watching the two magicians play off against each other, and wondering who will win right through to the climax.  As a movie, it’s a brilliant mental spectacle, and there’s an absolute bumload of clever surprises.  None so grand as the finale, where, if you didn’t see it coming from the clues (and they’re there, believe me – right from the beginning), you’ll either find it maddening or marvellous.

What bothers me most about Prestige is not the length, nor the persistent gloom – they’re both fine and necessary – it’s who we’re meant to be rooting for.  Even after at the film’s end, I was still behind Jackman’s increasingly obsessed character, despite the film flip-flopping between him and Bale for role of heroic protagonist all the way through.  Maybe, given both their stories (which I’m not spoiling, though this is making this particular entry a wee bit sparse), we have to take them on equal merit.  They’re both as cunning and as sleazy as each other.  Plus, I plain don’t like Christian Bale.  I don’t know why.  I think it’s the whole saga he had with that cameraman on the set of Terminator Salvation years back.  Or, it could be that I find him immensely over-rated.  I unwisely chose to publicly claim George Clooney and his nipples to be a better Batman (something I’ve since detracted for the sake of my own teeth).

For a film so amazingly over-the-top, and so desperately, gloomily serious all of the way through, I’m finding it hard to say much else.  I think it’s a good one to see once.  If you like twists and turns, it’s one to watch.  If you like Nolan’s other stuff, it’s one to watch.  If you like going away from a film content with what you’ve seen, feeling warm and fuzzy and without any further questions, avoid it.  I don’t think I’ll watch it again, purely because I know its secrets (how ironic!).

PROS : Good acting, even for Bale.  Great twists and moments of surprise.  Great visuals.  David Bowie suits a moustache.

CONS : If you lose concentration for ten seconds, you’ve lost the whole movie.  Desperately intense and poetic.  Not much joy.

OVERALL : 7/10.  Erm, see above.  I needed to cool my brain down afterwards.  How will I cope with Inception?  Find out in July.  I’m taking a seven-month break from Nolan.  I need it.

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