Director: Christopher Nolan
With: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman
Christopher Nolan has cornered the market in grim movies about zealously determined men and their obsessions. Where Batman Begins excelled in its contrast of theatricality and brooding introspection, and where Memento tormented the audience in its twisting plot, The Prestige trumps both, and by some way.
Ostensibly, The Prestige concerns two rival magicians – Christian Bale as the technical genius Alfred Borden, Hugh Jackman as the passionate performer Robert Angier – at the turn of the 20th century, Michael Caine’s Cutter bringing them together in their first job as stage hands. The film is largely told in flashback, as plot twists are gradually and creatively unveiled. The first of these flashbacks sets the story in motion, as an accident apparently caused by Borden results in Angier’s wife being killed on stage. Driven mad with grief, Angier vows to avenge his wife’s death, sparking a deadly contest between the two men as they each try to crack the other’s secrets. This, however, is a slight description of a story that refuses to stay unrevealed for long, constantly misdirecting the audience til the film’s incredible and wonderfully conducted final act.
In the hands of a less talented director, The Prestige would have fallen prey to its own trickery long before the final curtain, but Nolan’s script (co-written by his brother, Jonathan) captivates and refuses to relent. The mood is never relaxed, and the darkness of the two contending professionals is relayed effectively by Bale and Jackman alike. As their battle becomes increasingly personal, Nolan never gives an inch, forcing the audience to confront the most unpalatable aspects of the characters’ obsessive behaviour. The supporting cast of Caine, Andy Serkis, David Bowie, Scarlett Johansson and the excellent Rebecca Hall copes well with the small roles they are given, Bowie particularly effective as the glassy, mysterious scientist Tesla.
While Bale is once again flawless in his portrayal as a borderline psychopath, and Jackman capable as his damaged and occasionally inhuman adversary, the film does lose something in its lack of warmth. While their battle is fascinating, both men are emotionally cold, and it is difficult to decide which, if either, should come out on top. However, as a piece of filmmaking, The Prestige has few peers, and is a highly rewarding visual experience. In the opening scene, the film asks, “Are you watching closely?” By the end, you won’t believe your eyes.