When I first saw “The Prestige,” I liked it but it didn’t blow me away. I was a little disappointed. Re-watching it now, I realize why. The film really is quite extraordinary. Once again, I’m impressed with Christopher Nolan’s ability to write and structure a screenplay. While the film is impressive in that regard, it’s not the warmest film. There’s not a huge in for the audience on an emotional level. Like something of a magic trick, on second viewing, I am impressed by the spectacle and slight-of-hand. But is there much more to it then that?
There are a lot of intentional parallels in the film. In as few words as possible, the story revolves around the rivalry between stage magicians near the end of the 1800s. We follow both men, Christian Bale as Borden and Hugh Jackman as Angier, each fighting against each other. There’s a fractured timeline here. In a framing device, Borden reads Angier’s journal, flashing back to the previous years. Within the flashback, Angier reads Borden’s journal, further elaborating on events. Borden seems to live a double life, one where he’s a compassionate husband and father, and another where he’s obsessed with his work and having an affair with his assistant. There are two love interests. Both perform different versions of the same trick before updating both of their tricks again. Both characters meet up with Nikola Tesla.
There are other types of parallels. The real-life rivalry between Tesla and Thomas Edison appears in the background of the story, which mirrors the rivalry between Borden and Angier. Angier, like Edison, is a flashy showman and less of a magician. Borden, like Tesla, is the superior in skills but lacks the ability to sell it to an audience. Early in the film, a character talks about how a magic trick has three acts, a set-up, a turn, and a final reveal… Kind of like a movie script, maybe? Nolan fancies himself a magician with this film, playing by his own rules. It’s a film designed for a second viewing. The first time you’re just watching the trick, waiting for the reveal. Watching it again, you know the answer to the mystery and now you get to see the wheels turning. This reoccurring theme of doubles and twins is just one aspect of an intricate story.
The plot really does drawl you in. The non-linear structure works fantastically. The character reads a journal, revealing an amount of information to themselves and the audience. That is until, they reach the conclusion of the writing. The film hides the correct information from the audience, holding off on showing it until the right moment. Any gimmickry you could level at Nolan’s narrative trickery is designed to grab your attention and, more importantly, to keep you watching.
It’s not a totally heartless story, even if I’d say Nolan is more interested in his plot mechanism then the characters. Borden and Angier start out as friends, playful with one another. A friendly rivalry soon goes bitter and the two are compelled to destroy one another. You like both men, even if one is pretty clearly established as the villain by story’s end. Both are flawed people and their insecurities and imperfections make them relatable.
Quite a cast is assembled here. Christian Bale is well known for the constant intensity he brings to seemingly every role, an intensity that sometimes boils over in to real life. You see lots of that in here too, especially in the latter half of the film. It’s his softer moments that are more interesting. When he’s interacting with his wife or daughter or when he’s marveling at the art of magic. It shows Borden as a human being who can do more then just bluster and scowl. As good as Bale is, Jackman is the high-light performances. Like Bale, he starts out with his standard persona, that is someone with a flashy charm. There’s no denying that Jackman is a born showman. (Why else do you think they let him host the Oscars?) As the film progresses, he takes on some of Bale’s morbid intensity. The character definitely sells some of his soul in his quest to out-do his rival. It’s one of the strongest narrative turns in the film.
The supporting cast is equally strong. Michael Caine is good if not spectacular. He mostly does the same old thing. By this point in his career, Caine could play the wise old sage part in his sleep. It’s when his more rakish personality shines through that he’s at his best. As a huge fan, it’s great to see Bowie but I would have like to have seen more of him. Nikola Tesla is an iconic personality in history and I think the filmmaker realized that casting an equally iconic personality in the role would do a lot of the creative heavy-lifting. As Tesla’s assistant, Andy Serkis is having fun in a rare live-action role for him. He’s the film’s primary comic relief. Scarlet Johansson looks awfully nice in the Victorian lingerie but it’s not much of a performance. She’s supposed to be in love with Bale but never really conveys that level of emotion.
You could make the case that the film is something of a love story. A man’s devotion to his wife partially forms the basis of the story. But there’s absolutely zero investment in this part of the film. Nolan’s women characters are always his weakest and this film is no exception. Aside from Johansson’s thin performance, there’s the issue with Bale’s wife. She’s a woman ravaged by the manipulations of her husband and the other men around her. Too frequently, her pleas don’t come off as sad, desperate cries for help, but rather as petty annoyances. There’s a reason for this, we discover, but a character you don’t’ like or can’t relate too doesn’t help things, especially when that character’s fate is an important element to the story. And there’s the dead wife again, two for the price of one. What’s up with that?
The film is more visual then most of Nolan’s work. The entire Colorado sequence is a stand-out. He’s proven before he has a strength for snow and fog. The shot of the town’s lights going out over Jackman’s shoulder is a wonderful act of visual slight-of-hand. Overall, the field of light bulbs is a hugely memorable images. Tesla’s gets an appropriately epic entrance into the film.
And about that final reveal… It’s pretty ridiculous to assume and I don’t really think it was the filmmaker’s intention. But the way the camera lingers on that last image of Angier in the tank… Is that a bubble I saw? Is it possible that death isn’t even enough to bring this rivalry to an end? I’m not suggesting some sort of far-fetched sequel hook. Rather, I think Nolan was deliberately creating this kind of speculation, just because its fun and makes sense for the characters.
My initial opinion on “The Prestige” still kind of stands. My appreciation for story structure is obviously stronger these days then when I first saw it. I definitely enjoyed it more this time. There’s some character resonance here even if it takes some looking. I like the movie, don’t love it, but I respect the craft put in it. There’s a charming twinkle to it that’s somewhat missing from many of Nolan’s other films. You can tell the guy has a legit love of magic, or at least tricking his audience. [Grade: B+]