Now you see it, now you don’t: 1. The Prestige

If you’re like me, you’ll think Christopher Nolan owes us one after Batman Begins (or as I like do to dub it, Katie’s Career Ends Here). The Prestige is a good film, but sadly it misses the punch Nolan was able to deliver with Following and Memento.

Memento had a very clever trick: it’s a film about a man who has trouble remembering stuff and therefore the movie tells the story backwards.
The main problem with The Prestige is that you know it’s a movie about illusionists and you’re expecting things: you’re expecting that a movie about illusionists will include a few illusions, you’re expecting that the director who gave you Memento will be able to deliver a movie with some fresh twists… frankly, you’re expecting too much.
Adding insult to injury, there was a similar movie – The Illusionist, which I’ll review later – which meant both movies were going to be compared endlessly. Though the movies are quite different in style, this was bound to happen: remember 1999, when everyone was comparing The Matrix and eXistenZ?

I’ll try and treat the films differently (even though, when reviewing The Illusionist, I’ll draw some parallels to this movie) and gives to each his own. To give both movies the review they deserve.
First up, The Prestige.

If you can’t wait to the conclusion of this two-parter review, I’ll give away the clue: all in all, I find The Prestige the better movie of the two. Which, as I already mentioned, does not mean it’s a movie I cherish.

The main problem with the movie is its subject: this is not just a movie about two rivals, one of the rivals seems to have an act the other one is more than about: Angier (Sewell) is envious of Borden’s act, even to the point where he’ll send a female spy (Johansson) to unravel the secret. Angier desperately wants to find out: what is the clou?

 Why is a clou movie so tricky to make? Because the movie needs to be like a good illusion. An illusion – The Prestige informs us – exists of three parts: the build-up to the illusion (where the act is set up), the illusion itself and, most importantly, the prestige or the grand finale.
A clou movie can’t live without a bit of prestige: the movie has to end on a twist and that twist needs to be built up securely throughout the movie.
The most cited example here is The Usual Suspects, which is built up around the question “who is Keyser Soze?”. Sadly, I’d guessed correctly who it was long before The Usual Suspects ended.
Memento had a better build-up: by showing the movie in reverse, the clou was still at the end, but not the only thing you could appreciate in the movie. Another good example of a better build-up was David Lynch‘s series Twin Peaks. “Who killed Laura Palmer?” was the vital question of the series, but the series managed to continue even after the murderer had been identified.

Borden is excellently portrayed by Christian Bale, the real star of the movie: even if the film is allegedly about Angier, everything spins around Borden and his mystery: which trick does Borden use to open one door on the left and come out on the other side of the stage? If you think it isn’t possible, Nolan added a clever twist: though the movie is about illusion, the scientist Nikola Tesla (a very good David Bowie) is in the movie to come up with a few ‘supernatural’ twists. This, of course, adds to the number of possibilities of how the film will be able to reach its surprising twist.
And then there was light! (image: cinebel)But… to add to the prestige of the trick, there need to be clues in the movies. Things that make you go “damn, how did I miss that?”.

This is the weak point of The Prestige: I had guessed the movie’s outcome after half an hour. This, in itself, wouldn’t be too bad because the movie also focuses the rivalry between Angier and Borden. And, in fact, that is what the movie makes interesting.
But, to reach the twist, there are a lot of clues throughout the movie that, if you’re able to guess it upfront, can be pretty annoying. Another problem is that, for a movie with a prestige, 130 minutes are a long stretch to fill. The rivalry is interesting enough, but you don’t want to wait one and a half hour to see if your hunches are correct.

If The Prestige hadn’t focused so much on the mystery, the film would’ve been better. Now, you’ll have to do with the skillful direction of Nolan and a good cast: Rufus Sewell plays the lead, Christian Bale is the star of the film and Michael Caine is okay as Angier’s trustee. Nikola Tesla is greatly portrayed by David Bowie and Andy Serkis proves he can act without effects as Tesla’s assistant.
Many have spoken about Scarlett Johansson as the female lead, which is a shame as Rebecca Hall has a much bigger and harder role as Borden’s wife. But – it’s the magic of Hollywood – stars are always mentioned before upcoming actresses.
Luckily there’s DV to burst the bubble…

7/10

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