From the Archive: The Prestige

This was written shortly after I decided I was going to use my silly online outlet of the moment to take another crack at writing film reviews, essentially doing so after a layoff of over a decade. I think there’s a certain hesitancy apparent in the writing, reflecting that time away. It didn’t help that I was fairly indifferent to the film. Getting started, it’s easier to have movies that inspire some passion one way or the other. Now, I find The Prestige a little more interesting as part of Christopher Nolan’s apparently career-long quest to create metaphors for the filmmaking process. That doesn’t make me want to visit this middling film, though.

Sometimes the execution is more important than the outcome. Subscribing to that belief doesn’t quite equate to full-fledged appreciation for Christopher Nolan’s new film The Prestige, but it does help preserve some warm feelings as it scrambles in circles to its unsatisfying conclusion.

Based on a novel by Christopher Priest, the film concerns two rival magicians in 1899 London. Besides offering an opportunity for intricately considered art design, the time and setting of the film allow for the chosen professions of the two main characters to hold enough appeal to fill up major performance halls, giving their spirited battles of one-upmanship a real weight; there’s something really substantial at stake. In fact, that back and forth between the two characters is really what works best. For a portion in the middle of the film, the magicians are studying each other’s act, fervently trying to improve on what the other has concocted. This reaches its pinnacle with an illusion called The Transported Man. One invents the illusion; the other marvels over it, then steals it so he can mount it with greater showmanship. The sturdiest pleasure comes from watching the intricacies of these men at work, obsessing over the mastery of their craft and the constant quest for the applauding adoration of the crowd. The film doesn’t exactly dazzle with its intellect during these sections, but Nolan is a skilled enough craftsman himself to make it thoroughly entertaining.

As the film progresses and the inevitable twists and storytelling sleight-of-hand begins to take precedence, matters degrade considerably. The film slows down and becomes mired in its own layered complexities and movieland trickery. This is especially true as the plot begins to casually mix the deeply grounded with the highly fantastical, drawing in elements that stand outside the plausible. It strangely winds up devaluing the portions of the film that had previously been the most satisfying: the depiction of the painstaking mastery of manmade deception and the contraptions that help it seem as if reality itself is bending. There’s little excitement in the revelation of the film’s first major deceit (involving the character played by Nolan’s Batman, Christian Bale), in part because its cleverness seems so mundane in the face of the scientific sorcery that comes into play in the third act. It doesn’t help that, in regards to that first trick, Nolan hasn’t hidden the cards up his sleeve quite as effectively as necessary to preserve the satisfaction of true surprise.

The smoke lifts, the mirrors are put away. What remains is the fond memory of the stretch where Nolan lets us peek backstage at the mechanics of it all. The rest is merely distracting busyness.

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