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Monday 23 October 2006

Movie Review of The Prestige

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest

Starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlet Johansson, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Samantha Mahurin, David Bowie, and Andy Serkis

Both: All year we've been complaining about the movies we've been reviewing here. We told you we'd let you know when Locus finally sent us to a good film. And now, in recompense for our suffering, we get to review The Prestige. But in a way we're still waiting, because The Prestige is not a good film.

The Prestige is a great film.

Howard Waldrop: "Are you watching closely?" The tag line from a movie has never been truer. You damn well better be in The Prestige (not because it's confusing, though a couple of morons in the showing I was at were, and talked about it), because the more you watch the deeper it gets. (I mean that in the good way.)

There are three stories going on here: on the surface the rivalry between two Victorian/Edwardian cusp magicians. The second one: what effect this has on them and everyone around them; and three, a deeper not even really subtext about the nature of wonder.

Lawrence Person: It's the story of a rivalry that turns first bitter, and then into an obsession that becomes literally self-consuming.

Both: The actors have subsumed themselves in their roles. Hugh Jackman finally has a script that lets him act; there's no Wolverine anywhere at any time in anything he does. Christian Bale, best known as the most recent incarnation of Batman and the sick and slickly shallow title character in American Psycho — though perhaps best as Jim in Empire of the Sun. In Empire he was a tall, thin kid, but here he's turned into a Van-Morrison-Fireplug of a man (most scenes of the two together are filmed from Jackson's head level so he looks even shorter.) Walking in right out of 1901 (you'd swear) is Michael Caine — there's not an ounce of 20th Century in the job he turns in. The females leads don't look or act like anything they've been in before. It's like everyone took a deep breath before starting this movie, sort of an Actor Year Zero.

LP: Nolan, Bale, and Caine all did what they could to elevate Batman Begins, but they couldn't quite rise above their pedestrian third act. Here, they start out much higher, and rise very high indeed.

HW: There are no opening credits, so you'll have to wait 128 minutes to find out who played what. Unless you've read a lot of advanced publicity (LP: Or, perhaps, that list of actors at the top of this review), you'll shit your pants when you find out who plays Nikola Tesla — Tesla in the movies seems to have become the touchstone of the 20th Century: rent the Hungarian My Twentieth Century sometime and see how he was used there. Anyway, the actor who plays him is the last guy you'd guess, because, once again, no trace of his actual self so much as peeks out at you.

LP: I knew going in, but was still mighty impressed with the understated performance of a performer best know for overstatement.

HW: If you're watching closely (are you?) you'll find out a hell of a lot about 19th Century magic and illusion, stage effects, rope knots and cartage. But that's the stuff you just pick up. What's really going on is — and is within — the people. Watch Caine (who plays the manufacturer of stage illusion equipment) calmly sitting in the wings during a water-tank escape act from a locked three-inch-thick glass tank. He picks up his fire axe, clicks his stopwatch, and doesn't move. None of this is setup: we have to see where on the stopwatch he'll move, if at all. This is filmmaking not for dimbulbs.

LP: Pretty much every aspect of the movie is nearly flawless. The direction is assured and the pace is exactly right, steadily drawing us in as the shape of each magician's ultimate trick is slowly revealed. Likewise, the look and feel of the movie seem to perfectly capture the late Victorian era's combination of overstuffed magnificence rubbing shoulders with painful squalor, especially in the shallow but still magnificent facades of London theater stages. Cinematographer Wally Pfister, production designer Nathan Crowley, art director Kevin Kavanaugh, and set director Julie Ochipinti all deserve Oscar nods and stage bows.

Plus: It has Tesla coils. Lots of Tesla coils. You can never go wrong with Tesla coils...

HW: I credit a lot of this to the director, the script — half his, and to the source — Priest's book, which I haven't read, but Lawrence has.

LP: This is one of the exceedingly rare cases where the film is actually better than the book. The film is most definitely an adaptation, with several changes to the plot and characters (for example, Caine's character exists only as a composite of various other characters in the book), but keeping the essential nature of the book intact. In adapting Priest's novel, Nolan has removed the modern frame, explicated things that were merely implicated in the book, and interleaved and changed the diary material to tighten the pace of the story (the book wasn't slow, but it was leisurely). The result is taunt, engrossing, and suspenseful.

That doesn’t mean that Priest's World Fantasy Award-winning novel is not still worth reading; far from it. Though Nolan has improved and changed the story by removing the frame, the ultimate revelation displayed here is only the penultimate revelation in the book. (The book's last revelation requires both the frame and explaining the sort of things that aren't easily explained on film.) In dumping it, Nolan has structured the final "prestige" in a way far more disturbing than it was in the original.

HW: There are some ambiguities: the movie jumps back and forth in time; very little is told — it's shown; soon you can tell where and when you are by who's just done what. Motive operandi are established early in the narrative, not necessarily chronologically, but narratively, so when you see it you know who did it (are you watching closely)?).

The one time-ambiguity is an important part of the plot (you'll only think about it in hindsight, which means it didn't bother you when you saw it). Since the major McGuffin (is it?) is an illusion called the Transported Man, there's an homage to The Fly, very subtle and not the usual kind of thing either, and it's in the ambiguous portion. A truly gutsy thing to do.

LP: Unlike many movies, the non-linear narrative isn't a clever gimmick, it's merely the most natural way to tell the story and reveal the secrets at the proper time for them to have their maximum impact.

HW: There are lessons on the nature of acting and stage presence, and the lengths to which some people will go. There are lots of bungles (sabotage and accidents) that cost people fingers and dignity and loss of love and life. There's a scene of Bale and Johansson in bed. They've obviously made love; with the arm he's holding her with, behind her back, he's doing coin-runs across his knuckles. Hey presto!

This is the most intelligent movie in about 20 years, and gives me some hope for movies again (especially in this dismal year) much like (for very different reasons) Matinee and Ed Wood did in the 1990s. Maybe it's a concatenation of events — book, script, director, actors, set design — that will never (well, hardly ever!) be repeated. I hope not. I hope we will soon have two cinemas (one for intelligent people, and the rest of it for everyone else: Ooh! Pretty explosions!).

LP: Being an idealist, I think you can combine the two; Black Hawk Down comes to mind. But that's a topic for another day...

HW: There are maybe one or two things wrong in the whole movie — when Jackman's character walks into a 10 gigavolt static field generator his hair doesn't flare out like somebody's at the Avalon Ballroom in 1968. The effects of the time-ambiguity are explored, but not its implications, but as I said, that only niggles in hindsight.

LP: There's also one crowd-scene after Bale has had his child (and well after his mishap) where both his hands appears to be whole. There appears to be a justification for that at one point, but eventually that justification is taken away. (See The Amazing Person deftly tightrope-walk over the yawning Plot Spoiler!) So it's just a goof, but a minor one.

Both: Go see it and watch very closely. (Indeed, you might want to see it twice, and then read the book for good measure.) If there's any justice in the world, this should be a strong Oscar contender for Best Picture. At last, a movie not for dummies. Two Van de Graaff generators up, way up!

© 2006 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.