Thursday, November 02, 2006

Review - The Prestige

A magic trick, we learn in the opening minutes of The Prestige, usually consists of three parts. There’s The Pledge - when the magician shows you some ordinary item. Then there’s The Turn - when the magician makes this ordinary object do something extraordinary. Finally, there’s The Prestige - the climax of the act, the moment when the magician shocks you with an extraordinary revelation.

Christopher Nolan’s adaptation (along with his brother Jonathan) of Christopher Priest’s novel could be summed up in a similar fashion. The film’s Pledge is a great start - the intriguing tale of two magicians who become embroiled in a self-destructive rivalry, obsessively trying to gain the upper hand on each other. Things start to look a little problematic at The Turn, though; when the film’s endless twists stretch plausibility to the limit, and the gloomy tone grows increasingly unpleasant. By the time The Prestige itself has been revealed, the whole edifice has crumbled in on itself; brought down by the myriad plot-holes and absurdities which litter the script like so many trapdoors.

“Are you watching closely?” asks the voiceover at the film’s start, as we are shown a mysterious pile of top hats abandoned in the middle of the forest; and you will have to watch closely to keep up with The Prestige, as the narrative continually jumps through hoops. At the film’s start, Borden (Christian Bale) and Angier (Hugh Jackman) are aspiring magicians working in London in the late 19th Century. They act as assistants to the more established Milton (real-life magician Ricky Jay), and they work closely with Cutter (Michael Caine) the man who does all the behind-the-scenes work, creating the contraptions which help bring Milton’s magic act to life. The centrepiece of Milton’s act features Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo) escaping from a water-filled box, with Borden and Angier chosen as ‘volunteers’ from the audience to help tie her up. Of course, their knots should be easily slipped, but Borden often insists on tying a different knot, a knot he believes is safer, and one night the act ends in disaster, killing Angier’s wife.

Angier swears revenge on Borden, and as the two of them build their own careers on the stages of London, they become locked in a tit-for-tat game which lasts for years. At first, their actions simply see them turning up at each other’s shows dressed in silly false beards and disrupting the performance (the midsection is like half an hour of Scooby Doo revelations), but their rivalry then develops a nastier edge which sees lives being put at risk, and the creation of a certain magic trick pours fuel on the flames of their antagonism. Borden, the better magician of the two, comes up with ‘The Transporting Man’, a trick which amazes the public and even has Angier himself declaring it the greatest magic trick he has ever seen. He becomes consumed with the desire to discover Borden’s secret and steal it for himsel, utilising an duplicitous assistant (Scarlett Johansson), and travelling to America to meet Nikola Tesla (David Bowie).

I had high hopes for The Prestige, given the enticing premise of duelling magicians and the fact that it’s the latest film from the consistently interesting Christopher Nolan, but it’s a clunky disappointment. This is Nolan’s first film since his impressive Batman Begins, and while he is clearly a talented and intelligent director, I think this material shows up his limitations. The reason I say that is because Nolan strikes me as something of a technocrat who has a firm grasp of all the tools required to be a fine filmmaker, but he struggles to fill his pictures with a sense of heart or wonderment. His brooding, emotionally clinical approach melded well with his sombre Batman Begins, Insomnia and Memento, but this is a film about magic, and it’s one of the least magical films of the year. Nolan delights in showing us the way the tricks are done, but he never lets us share the audience’s enchantment.

There’s a lot of machinery in The Prestige, from the gadgets which go into creating the illusion of the magic tricks to Tesla’s enormous alternating current device, and the scenes featuring this sort of stuff are the ones which appear to get Nolan’s juices flowing. There’s a rare bit of life about the sequences with Cutter showing Angier a new bit of kit he’s knocked up, but the film becomes lazy and rote when depicting the acts themselves; we get a few shots of the crowd going “ooh” and “ah” and that’s about it. Nolan is still a director who knows how to wield a camera and set a scene, and The Prestige is extremely well put together, but it is also put together without the slightest hint of wit, flair or excitement; and you really need some of those elements to get away with a story this daft.

I’m loathe to discuss the plot’s flaws in too much detail, for fear of spoiling its surprises, but the plain fact is that it makes little or no sense. Too many leaps in logic are required, too many holes in the plot are quickly skipped over, and too many ridiculous developments are piled upon each other in the film’s second half. The film itself is an nothing more than an act of sleight-of-hand, made solely to pull the wool over the viewers’ eyes, but it isn’t tightly constructed enough to really work; it’s like watching a magician whose hands are just a little too slow to hide his method.

The Prestige tries to make us care about the battle between Borden and Angier, but once again it proves that Nolan doesn’t really do emotion very well. Bale is strong as Borden, although he does engage in a little too much cockney shouting, and Jackman is solid enough as Angier, but neither of them displays a great deal of charisma; and instead of getting caught up in their battle, we just bear witness to two dour, self-absorbed characters taking their trivial game to increasingly sadistic ends. It’s an unedifying spectacle. Caine lent some heart to Batman Begins with his touching turn as Alfred, but he phones his performance in here, sleepwalking through a lazily written role; and while Scarlett Johansson has a good go at her English accent, it quickly transpires that she has been given a cleavage-enhancing corset rather than an actual character.

And what of Bowie? Casting him as Tesla could have been an inspired move, but he seems straightjacketed in the part; looking like Ricky Gervais, sounding like a Welshman, and offering nothing except yet another dry, lifeless performance in a film which is bursting with them.

In a way, I think Bowie’s appearance here sums up The Prestige quite nicely. There was a great chance there to give the character of Tesla a little eccentricity, to make him memorable, but Nolan won’t have any of it and he shuts Bowie down like he shuts down anything slightly fun or imaginative in the film, leaving him stuck in a role any anonymous actor could have played. The Prestige is not exactly a bad film, there’s too much talent involved for it to be unwatchable, but it’s a seriously misguided one. Nolan has directed a dark, miserable and alienating picture which tries to tie us up in knots, but ends up tripping over itself into a pat ending. The director seems to get lost in the elaborate hall of mirrors he has constructed, and he never remembers that magic is supposed to be fun.