SPOILER ALERT: This review contains NO spoilers for The Prestige … Unless, perhaps, if you’re watching closely.
At the beginning of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, Michael Caine explains in voiceover that every magic trick has three parts: the Pledge, in which the object of the trick is shown to the audience; the Turn, where (for example) the object of the Pledge might be made to disappear; and the Prestige, where the magician brings the disappeared thing back. The trick isn’t in making the thing disappear, you see: any joker with a pencil can do that. The trick is in making the impossible look possible, or at least that’s what Nolan wants us to think.
Borden (Christian Bale) and Angier (Hugh Jackman) are a pair of aspiring stage magicians who find themselves in a bitter rivalry after a trick goes tragically wrong. That’s the Pledge of this film: we’re promised a sort of revenge thriller within the highly secretive world of magic, and that’s certainly how it starts out. But the film is told in flashback, after a present-day Borden witnesses the end of their rivalry, and as those flashbacks unfold the Turn is revealed. There is a Prestige, of course, but to say much more about it would be to ruin the experience.
The Prestige excels because on the first viewing it is an affecting thriller with some powerhouse dramatic moments, and on subsequent viewings it actually gains dramatic power even though you know what is coming. This is a film which might be said to have a twist ending – that is the point of the Prestige in a magic trick, after all – but the twist is not spoiled on multiple viewings because Nolan is so meticulous in the construction of his little trick. Many lines provide decent drama during the first time through, but then they pick up additional power on later viewings. When Borden’s wife (Rebecca Hall) tells him, “I know who you really are,” my instinct on the first viewing was to think, “No, you totally don’t,” which is a tragic place for her to be in. But now I wonder: did she know? And is it even more tragic if she did?
Part of the reason that this film can still seem so adept on multiple viewings is that it is itself a commentary on filmmaking and on storytelling. Like Inception, and to a lesser degree Insomnia and Memento, this is about characters whose entire livelihood is based around creating and selling narratives to other people. Nolan telegraphs his film’s twists in many ways, because the construction of the twist is in part what magic is all about. The real key is why the twist is constructed that way, and which of the characters’ obsessions is fulfilled in so doing. One might imagine a war going on in filmmaking, between expert technicians who have no concern for mass appeal (Stanley Kubrick, perhaps), and showmen who have no qualms with stealing the tricks of the great technicians and dressing them up for popular consumption (Brett Ratner, maybe). In fact, personal duality is such a big theme in this film that one might wonder if that war is going on within Nolan himself.
The two leads are fantastic. Who’s to say what was on the page with these characters: one wonders if they were conceived as “A” and “B”, to be plugged into the proper slots in the elaborate clockwork of a plot, with the remainder of their names filled in later along with their backstories. But as their rivalry becomes an obsession for each of them, their performances become sharper and more filled-in. Bale in particular should be noted. Borden is a technical master, but has no head for the showmanship that makes a great performer; when Bale went into a profane rant on the Terminator: Salvation set (NSFW), he seemed to be equally obsessed over a technical detail of acting and movie-making, with no thought about the show he might be putting on for any crew member with a recording device. It was hard not to think that a little bit of Borden had stuck with him.
The supporting cast is also superb. Scarlett Johansson’s speculative British accent is probably the only real flaw among them, but even that is not too bad: Johansson doesn’t strain to get the accent right, she just does the work and lets her face tell us where she is emotionally. Hall is tasked with showing us the complete dissolution of her marriage by herself – Borden is too obsessed with magic to devote time to the issue – and she’s more than up to the task. I also appreciated the physical choices of Johansson, Hall, and Piper Perabo as the various love interests: all three resemble each other just enough to suggest that Angier and Borden are being haunted by the spirit of a single person, but without being heavy-handed about it.
And finally, there is Caine, whose bangers-and-mash accent and soulful eyes have been a cinematic re-discovery since Nolan cast him in Batman Begins. Bale and Jackman each have powerful dramatic moments at the film’s climax, but the entire film is tied up with Caine’s voice, giving us the real lesson about magic (and filmmaking): the trick is not even about making the impossible possible, it’s about demonstrating your mastery over the audience’s reality. Nolan did a fine job with the Dark Knight, but this is the film where he demonstrates his deepest mastery over us.
Reviewed by Mark Young