by Allan Fish
(USA 2006 131m) DVD1/2
Are you watching closely?
p Christopher Nolan, Aaron Ryder, Emma Thomas d Christopher Nolan w Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan novel Christopher Priest ph Wally Pfister ed Lee Smith m David Julyan art Nathan Crowley cos Joan Bergin
Christian Bale (Alfred Borden), Hugh Jackman (Robert Angier/Gerald Root), Michael Caine (John Cutter), Scarlett Johansson (Olivia Wenscombe), Rebecca Hall (Sarah), Piper Perabo (Julia McCullough), David Bowie (Nikola Tesla), Andy Serkis (Alley), Samantha Mahurin (Jess), Roger Rees (Owens), Ricky Jay (Milton),
Christopher Nolan’s fifth film was met with muted applause on its release in 2006. Many critics were impressed by it, yet at the same time maddened by it. Others didn’t rate it at all and couldn’t take it seriously. The reasons for ironically slighting this sleight of cinematic hand were numerous, but mostly centred around several factors, the biggest being the release earlier that year of similar magic trick The Illusionist – backed up by the fact that in the UK the earlier film came out afterwards, and received the fate Nolan’s film had received in the US. That other film was a fine film in its own right, but once the trick is unravelled, there’s not much else to it, while it’s never explained how its protagonist managed to make himself incorporeal. There is nothing in Nolan’s film that isn’t explained, and yet for all that, it remains enigmatic, multi-textured and involving no matter how many times you see it. This is not merely a case of pulling the rug out from under the audience, but convincing them that the rug was never there in the first place.
Set around the turn of the century, Robert Angier and Alfred Borden are two rival up and coming magicians working the theatres of London. Their semi-friendship is blown asunder when Angier’s beloved Julia is drowned on stage in an accident which might have been caused by Borden. Blaming him for her death, Angier swears to make him pay, and their professional rivalry reaches new levels when Borden introduces his long cherished new trick, The Transported Man, onto the London stage, and leaves Angier obsessed with how he did it.
The Prestige is not a film to take lightly, dabbling on the fringes of the occult and sci-fi, it’s impossible to categorise. It’s a mystery, yes, but one that isn’t just interested in how certain things happened, but also making sure the audience doesn’t see it. And, rather than hide the truth at every step, the easier way to do it, it rather uncovers a piece of it on a regular basis to the point where, upon each viewing, fresh clues and nuances are revealed. Whole scenes find themselves playing completely differently to how one didn’t only first see them, as second, third and fourth, too. It plays with you, torments you, and leaves you as hungry for answers as the driven Angier. It dares to have its protagonists cold and obsessive, yet one empathises with each of them. The very nature of show-business is encapsulated on the disparate characteristics of the two men, one a great showman with no talent as a magician, the other a master magician who lacks charisma. It’s that same lack of emotional resonance that many critics railed against, but when has that been a pre-requisite? The fact is these people are driven men, and if the women in their lives seem merely sideshows, that’s what they were to them.
Thus the women in the film are there merely for distraction – and in Johansson’s case, in corset and stockings, a very pleasurable distraction for many – but the film itself tells you that’s what they are there for in the act, and Nolan’s film is one massive magic act, using the film-maker’s box of tricks, as opposed to a stage. There’s fine supporting work from Caine, while Jackman is truly revelatory in what amounts to a man adopting the façade of another man, while also playing another man, hired to act as the façade’s double. Bale also relishes another opportunity to work with Nolan away from Gotham City. I haven’t even begun to mention the incredible visual texture – take a bow, Wally Pfister. The truth is, however, I don’t want to give too much away, even though, as we are told, “the secret impresses no-one; the trick you use it for is everything.”