It makes me wonder why I put off watching Christopher Nolan’s other films for so long. After all, his track record is pitch perfect: a clean slate with not a single Rotten score on the Tomatometer – something even the best directors would be hard-pressed to achieve. For sure, he doesn’t have that many movies on his resume as compared to the other ‘greats’ in film directing, but quality is often far more valued over quantity. And my love for his Batman films and Inception doesn’t justify why I was so slow in getting to his other works, like Memento and Insomnia. And now, The Prestige.
The Prestige belongs to that category of films that explore the human condition in the context of a life on stage, assuming the identity of an artist dedicated to his craft who gives his life to his audience because the stage is the only place where he truly exists. Done properly, these films are masterpieces, a mirror for us to reflect on our own inner demons, the darkness in each of us that we would rather ignore. Black Swan is possibly the closest approximation I can think of, belonging in this same category of psychological thriller and showing the lengths performers go to in the name of the stage and their craft. My Week with Marilyn and La Vie en Rose are the distant, twice-removed cousins, reflecting the trauma of a performer’s life, but belonging more in the category of biopics and considerably less dark. Here, Nolan plays with an interesting facet of this genre of film; after all, ‘magician’ or ‘illusionist’ is unlikely to be the first thing to pop into one’s mind when one thinks of the various forms of performing arts. In that respect, Nolan once again shows his eye for originality and fresh perspectives.
Yet the film is more than just a solo exploration of a one-man descent into darkness. And here is what propels the film to such dizzying heights. The two central characters – Angier and Borden – play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses, sabotaging each other’s career and life in wickedly delightful turns. The women in their lives play the parts of pawn, manipulator, and victim; not a single role is wasted in the name of cinematic eye candy. No, this is Nolan we’re talking about here, not Michael Bay. The performances are electrifying (in all sense of the word) all around, and deeply moving – we are talking about a psychological thriller, after all.
But where the film truly shines is in the mystery. More than just a disturbing exploration of the darkness in our souls a la Nina’s descent into madness in Black Swan, here the film could just as well be classified as a mystery thriller. And unlike those mysteries where certain plot points are left unexplained and the audience is left feeling cheated of a resolution, everything is accounted for here, from the magic tricks to the grand schemes concocted by the characters. Well, nearly everything, that is. There is one particular plot point that is never explained, and which the director would likely find hard-pressed to explain, because it appears nothing short of magic, despite originating from science. As the characters stress so often, it is truly magic, and I’d advise you to just go along with the flow and accept that particular plot point. It can be construed as a plot hole, of course, but that would take away some of the joy of watching the film, because it is such a critical plot point, but it is really not the point that the film-makers are trying to make. What comes from that is the crux. Besides, you’d be hard-pressed to feel cheated, because as the film barrels towards the ending, you really do get all the answers to your questions, and that is when everything falls so brilliantly into place that you’ll find you can’t call Nolan anything but genius.
And yes, one of Nolan’s trademark is his genius. His films, and his scripts, are just so, so clever. Everything the characters do makes sense when the big reveal comes, and you suddenly understand why the characters do what they do. It is perfect, in every sense of the word. For those who have seen The Prestige, consider the following exchange:
Cutter: Take a minute to consider your achievement. I once told you about a sailor who drowned.
Robert Angier: Yes, he said it was like going home.
Cutter: I lied. He said it was agony.
When you know the truth about how Angier accomplished his trick, night after night, this exchange makes Angier out to be more than just a cold-hearted man who has fallen so low he is willing to go to any length to achieve his glory on stage. It sounds impossible to surpass that character twist, but if there is anyone who can do this, it’s Nolan. Similarly, in the middle of the film I found myself taking Angier’s side because I disagreed with the way Borden was treating his wife; I couldn’t conceive identifying with a two-timing bastard. When the big revelation is dropped out, it will have you re-evaluating everything you thought about his character. Similarly, when Angier comments on how sharp Borden was for spotting the trick employed by the Chinese magician, you don’t realise half the reason why Borden understood the man so well, including the length he went to his off-stage life (his real life) just so he could perfect his act in is on-stage life, until you unravel the big secret.
Nolan also shows his genius in integrating the story of Tesla and Einstein. As every physics or electrical engineering student should now, Tesla and Einstein were collaborators turned bitter rivals, fighting for A.C. and D.C. respectively, and sparking off (pun intended) a series of high-profile public demonstrations to lambast each other’s campaign, that eventually came to be known as the Current Wars. There’s a very interesting piece on Wikipedia about the consequences of their rivalry – including the invention of the electric chair – and you’ll notice the parallels between their rivalry and that between Angier and Borden. As the movie caption goes, “A Friendship That Became a Rivalry. A Rivalry That Turned Deadly.” Not one of my favourite taglines, but an apt one. So it was for Einstein and Tesla, so it was for Angier and Borden.
Watch this one closely.
Rating on Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Rating on IMDb: 8.4
Viewing history: Seen 1x. Library DVD.