Way back in Episode 1, Sam and I talked about the works of writer/director Christopher Nolan. His latest film, The Prestige, opened Friday (at #1 in the United States). I caught it Saturday and found it a good, though not quite great, film about obsession and trickery, full of interesting twists and turns. I promise this review won’t spoil a thing, but if you’ve not seen it I caution you about reading other reviews: it’s a tough movie not to spoil.
The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Priest and its plot revolves around characters played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, two stage magicians in 19th Century England whose professional rivalry becomes personal, leading to some unexpected consequences. There are interesting supporting performances, particularly by Michael Caine and David Bowie (yes, the singer). The acting is pretty good, but some of the characters — especially female roles played by Scarlett Johansson and Piper Perabo — feel underdeveloped, thus giving the actors relatively little with which to work.
That said, it’s a movie that uses its characters like props in a magic act. A magician’s patter, the story he tells us as he fools us, is not really the point of the trick — nobody is going to complain if we don’t fully understand the Queen of Hearts’ motivation during a card trick. The movie is a metaphor about deception and obsession, things all of Nolan’s films have been about, and in fact it tells us quite clearly at several points what it’s about. It could have used a little bit more subtlety as even a bad magician knows to show us and not tell us, but it still paints an effective picture of men controlled by their own obsessions.
The story unfolds at a good clip and manages to effectively juggle multiple timelines. Christopher Nolan, who adapted the screenplay with his brother Jonathan Nolan (the man who wrote the short story that would become Memento), has previous experience telling complex stories and here that experience pays off. The plot involves flashbacks within flashbacks, but after about 15 minutes or so I had a clear idea of how the timelines fit together and I was able to follow the progression of the story without trouble.
I will say that if you are expecting to be really fooled you may be disappointed. The movie tells us to pay close attention, and, doing so, it is fairly easy to figure out at least one or two big secrets before they are revealed. In a way that’s refreshing, though, as the twists are nicely set up, and we never feel as though the screenplay is cheating by revealing things we never could have realized.
If it’s not Nolan’s best scripted movie (that’s still Memento), it’s his best-looking one. Working with regular cinematographer Wally Pfister, Nolan has captured a very lush film that moves between the gutters and stages of London with a wonderous side trip out to a remote and snowbound Colorado mountain town, where a scene with light bulbs in the snow strikes a moment of great visual beauty.
The Prestige is one of the better entertainments out there. It never resonated with me the way a really great movie would have, but it had something to say and was never dull or disappointing. Those who watch it the same way they would a good magic act won’t be disappointed.