Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Prestige, The (2006)

A night assignation in a romantic destination

In a strange way, Michael Caine’s monologue in the opening scene of The Prestige becomes a stand-in for a mission statement from Christopher Nolan: the structure and logic of a thriller is almost like a stage magic act. To wit, there are 3 acts: "The Pledge" - the magician shows you something ordinary, but of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn" - the magician makes his ordinary something do something extraordinary, like disappear. Now if you're looking for the secret... you won't find it, that's why there's a third act called, "The Prestige" - the object will reappear, but in a way you've never seen before if it’s a good magician. In a thriller, a perfectly mundane situation develops into something unexpected, complicated, and mysterious, leading to a final revelation that clarifies and reveals a solution, but in a way you’ve never seen before – if the director is good.

And indeed, The Prestige turns out to be a thriller involving two magicians who excel in making objects and people disappear and reappear. One of them is dead at the beginning of the movie, and the other is sentenced to hang for his murder. That’s because the two have a long-running professional and personal rivalry dating from their days as stage assistants to an aging magician, when Angier (not his real name since his family disapproves of the stage) lost his wife (the lovely assistant who escapes from a tank of water every night) due to a tragic mistake by Borden. Since the two men cannot kill each other, they try to ruin each other professionally by either deciphering how the rival’s stage tricks are done, and to do a superior version of the same thing. Or by sabotaging their stage acts. Much like the Apple-Microsoft rivalry, I suppose.

And since Borden is the far superior magician (albeit with inferior showmanship), the parallel story has Angier on a hunt to decipher, duplicate, and procure the same equipment that Borden uses for his showstopper Transported Man trick. Tying all 3 timelines – Borden’s prison story, the rivalry story, and Angier’s hunt – is a set of diaries by both magicians, and Christopher Nolan’s non-linear but highly structured storytelling, which should remind audiences of the gimmickry the director employed in Memento previously.

With the support of a well-constructed period set, the resulting story is engaging, though not without several glaring flaws which seem to highlight the limits of applying the Memento-like structural tricks to this movie. The first mistake is conceptual: while the stage magician’s act is similar in structure to that of a thriller, what a thriller – and especially this film – does is to strip away and explain the central secret and mystery in the story. And as different characters remark throughout The Prestige, magicians never ever reveal the secrets of their tricks (unless for an extraordinary sum of money, and then only to very few people, under a pledge of secrecy); unsolved tricks infuriate and mystified, but once the secret is given away, the trick becomes worthless. I was just surprised that this self-undermining tension wasn’t recognised and then made full use by the talented writer-director.

The more objectionable flaw in this movie comes as a consequence of the first: far too much is given away and amplified by Nolan’s overneat story structure that he gives the game away far too early. All you need to do is pay some attention to repetitious bait-and-switch magic routines, and you’ll smell the first plot twist within 10 minutes of the opening (Nolan reveals it way close to the final 15 minutes). You’ll identify the second plot twist within half an hour, and the third within the end of the first act. Act three merely just confirms the plot twists and gives more clues to how everything was done, way in advance of the dramatic reveal at the end.

Coming close to this is the poor casting of Michael Caine. The actor is highly talented, and the only member of the cast who does not mangle the Cockney accent, but by chewing up the scenery so much, he actually provides too early the clue to the final twist of the movie. It’s a pity, because David Bowies’s Nikola Tesla had every license to chew up both scenery and co-actors, and yet turned in a comparatively bland performance.

We realise that Christopher Nolan is an exceptionally gifted writer, but it appears that this movie has too clever a script, so skilfully put together structurally that its artistry makes it paradoxically too predictable. When you are done unravelling the mysteries by the end of the first half or slightly later, you’ll realise that the overattention to plot and structure make for an intricate plot with characters that you are just unable to root for, sympathise, or even care for. This is the beauty and the tragedy of Nolan’s latest project.

First published at incinemas on 19 October 2006

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