Wednesday, 28 March 2007

The Prestige (2006)

The Prestige

There are only a small handful of directors who I make a point of keeping an eye out for, just as there are only a few actors I follow because they can turn even the lamest script into something worth seeing.

Christopher Nolan is one such director, and Christian Bale is one such actor. So when the two work together, as they have done on The Prestige, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that the end result is going to be worth seeing. And in this instance it's a conclusion that proves correct. This may not be quite up to the director's best work (Memento) but it's not far off it!

Hugh Jackman plays Robert Angier, friends with fellow magician Alfred Borden until the night a magic illusion goes wrong with tragic consequences

There are some very obvious echoes of that earlier film here. The screenplay has, once again, been written by the director's brother Jonathan Nolan, and features frequent temporal shifts that mean the film can quickly get confusing if you're not paying attention: There's a reason why the film opens with the line 'Are you watching closely?'!

That being said, I'm told the book on which this film is based is even more confusing, and there are real rewards here for those who pay attention to the clues which help identify the twists and turns that will dominate the final act.

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play two magicians, Angier and Borden, under the tutelage of Michael Caine's magic trick designer 'Cutter'. The two magicians have very different personalities. Angier is a natural entertainer who has little interest in the mechanics of a trick, while Bale understands the technicalities perfectly but has little of the showmanship skills required to become a truly great magician.

The two magicians are friends until a tragic accident during an evening performance kills Borden's wife. There is a hint that the overly-confident Borden may have been partly to blame and what was friendly rivalry between the two men becomes bitter enmity. As the film moves forward the two men become increasingly obsessed with one-upmanship and dominance, no matter what the cost might be, whether that cost is measured in financial, personal or human terms.

Christian Bale adopts an East End of London accent for the role of rival magician Alfred Borden

The narrative structure moves backwards and forwards in time, showing each magician's view through personal diaries and flashbacks. Although the secrets to some Victorian tricks are revealed (who knew that so many birds were killed in the name of entertainment?!) the film is essentially about obsession, rather than magic tricks per se.

The acting, as one would expect from both Bale and Jackman, is superb, and enhanced by an incredibly strong supporting cast. David Bowie has received some flack in certain quarters for his role as German scientist, Tesla, but I never found him less than convincing. The two female leads, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson prove themselves the equal of the men, and there are nice turns too from Andy Serkis, as Tesla's assistant, Roger Reese as Borden's lawyer, and a host of recognisable faces in smaller parts (including Chesterton Lewis from Frasier - who'd have thought?!). Even Michael Caine deviates from his usual 'dial it in' performance, although recent claims on Michael Parkinson's TV Show of the actor having worked hard at developing a specific accent are laughable based on the evidence on show here. This is Michael Caine performing pretty much the same act, using the same accent, as he always has!

Michael Caine claims he spent many long hours perfecting a new accent for his character. Odd that - he sounds exactly like he always does!

The film is beautifully crafted, and the story intriguing enough to keep you hooked to the end. While the denouement is perhaps a little hokey, reliant on the audience accepting some rather fantastical science fiction being added to the 'real' world of Victorian magic that we're shown, the overall effect is so enchanting that one doesn't feel too cheated at the multiple explanations and demonstrations of 'The Prestige' that constitute the final act of the film. Director and actors alike have done what they told us they would do right at the start of the film - used distraction and clever manipulation to impress us with The Prestige of making what was a fairly good trick suddenly become a very impressive one.

Nolan has proved himself to be a director of great distinction, and The Prestige is probably his best work after Memento (I wasn't really a fan of Insomnia, and whilst Batman Begins was very good, I'm not convinced Nolan has quite got the hang of a fast-paced action movie yet). It's hard to think of another director who could have produced something as epic, beautifully shot, and internally consistent as this, and certainly not on the limited budget that was available.

This is a film for the brain, rather than the heart, with neither of the two main characters being particularly likeable. It's a sign of Nolan's skill as director that the lack of identification with the two main protagonists doesn't mean we're any less enthralled by the story that unfolds.

Andy Serkis has a small role as German scientist Tesla's assistant

The extra's on this DVD release (also due to become available in high definition soon - drat! I should have waited!) are acceptable rather than genrous.

There's the usual Making of 20 minute feature (called The Director's Notebook, together with five very short featurettes on different aspects of the production. Disappointingly, there's no director's commentary - something I think many viewers would have hoped for, given some of the obscurity of the main feature and the questions that are inevitably raised as a result.

The Prestige is film-making at its best, and it's a film that will repay repeated viewings. As such it's recommended highly as a purchase, rather than a rental. I can't wait to see what the director does next!

David Bowie received some flack in many quarters for his performance as Tesla. In fact he's fine in the role.

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