Review: “The Prestige”

If “The Illusionist” was a relatively mainstream movie posing as an art house film, then “The Prestige” is an elaborate art house film posing as a mainstream movie. Much like “Capote” was to the recent “Infamous”, “Prestige” is the older, distant, more intellectual and better made brother to the “Illusionist” – though the later will probably find more appeal amongst audiences with its easier story and more emotionally involving plotline.

Much like Director Chris Nolan’s other films, this a tightly scripted yet convoluted affair that’s heavy on plot, often plays around with structure, is deliberately slow in its pacing, and is emotionally a bit of a wet sack. Deadly serious and surprisingly dark, audiences may find the tale of rival magicians a somewhat cold affair that never really allows the characters to open up beyond their rather one-dimensional obsession for revenge – though that is somewhat the point of the whole tale. Despite marketing itself on its twists and setting, the movie is really a variation of “Moby Dick” – a sinister and ultimately tragic exploration of the cost of taking an obsession for revenge too far (guess Bale is the white whale).

The mystery angle is what everyone will be talking about after the film and it’s full of them, both the key characters have their separate big twists along with multiple other minor ones along the way that ensure that even if you figure out some, there’ll be others to take you by surprise. Having grown up on Agatha Christie mysteries the twist with Bale I got early on, the one with Jackman though I didn’t but that’s because it goes in a direction that doesn’t properly fit with the rest of the film. The mysteries are cleverly set up and explained for the most part, though with so many threads in play it comes as no surprise that one or two little things are left dangling (he can’t remember which knot he tied? c’mon!!).

That’s one of the minor problems here – in a slow film there’s almost too much going on. Many films are under-written or not well thought out enough, ‘Prestige’ is the opposite – it’s almost too clever for its own good and consequently thinks it can outsmart the audience at every turn. The trouble with that thinking is that it takes the audience’s intelligence somewhat for granted – those not smart enough will simply turn away, others will not just get it but be ahead of where the filmmakers expect them to be. Not helping is some odd structural choices which includes flashbacks within flashbacks that, whilst clever, much like the end just aren’t as shocking or impactful as Nolan & co. were obviously hoping for.

The ones who’ll really click with this film are those few who understand that the enjoyment of a mystery tale is not in its solving but in the process of assembling the solution. If you think ahead to what the solution might be you’ll probably get it, after all magic is merely elaborate misdirection away from a simple and logical sleight-of-hand. Those who can let the film unfold on its own terms though, try not to guess ahead but enjoy what’s up at the present time and let it weave its spell, those are the ones who’ll get real enjoyment out of this.

Performances are solid all around, each actor well suited for the material despite one or two minor problems. Whilst Jackman’s somewhat over-the-top portrayal of a drunk ‘double’ version of him approaches a slightly farcical level, his main performance is strong and a nice change of pace from his more cheery leading man turns. Bale as always brings his seriousness and dedication, as does Caine whose warmth and cool-headed logic makes him the most sympathetic character. Small roles from Rebecca Hall & Andy Serkis are excellent as well, along with good cameos from TV supporting talents like Daniel Davis & Edward Hibbert. Only Johansson seems a little out of place, more a casting oddity than anything as her character is only marginally involved.

The one role that everyone’s going to walk away from this film talking about though is David Bowie. Utterly perfect casting has the former musician playing the film’s one real life character, Serbian physicist genius Nikola Tesla. The best scenes of the film are spent exploring his personal demons, his rivalry with Thomas Edison, and his experiments with AC electrical generation and transmission in Colorado Springs – some work of which to this day has yet to be duplicated. Unfortunately the film does play this angle a bit too far, yielding a second act twist that sadly pushes the narrative into the science fiction realm for a handful of scenes. It’s a shame as it doesn’t need to go there and somewhat cheapens the other 98% of the film which goes to great pains to explain everything logically and with great realism.

Filled with some of the best production design and actors money can buy, the movie looks stunning. Period piece recreation is excellent, effects are spare and convincing when utilised, costumes are lavish, the score deliciously twisted and jangling, and cinematography is wonderfully rich, colourful and dense. Ultimately “The Prestige” is not an easy film. It demands your attention throughout and goes to some dark places that aren’t the most comfortable to visit. Like all of Nolan’s films it is so richly layered that it’ll no doubt improve on repeat viewings, but it doesn’t have that easier appeal and spark of genre-reinventing brilliance that made “Memento” and “Batman Begins” shine so strongly.

Some will be just be confounded by the film and give up, others will find it too sterile or simply trying too hard – both of which are fair if somewhat cop out complaints. It requires a suspension of disbelief and a willingness to take apart things that some may better like left unexplained. It wasn’t at all what I expected, and I left the theatre feeling the tiniest bit deflated despite quite enjoying it. Like a good meal though in reflection it has only improved with time. Even if you don’t click with this story, you have to respect the intricacies and detail that has gone into everything about it. A dark delight that, like all of Nolan’s work, continues yielding rewards long after the trick has been played out.