“You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple, and miserable. Solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you could make them wonder, and then you… then you got to see something really special. You really don’t know? It was the look on their faces…”
Most of the time, my M.O. on this blog is to review movies that are new to me. Not necessarily to anyone else, but new to me. Sometimes, though, I feel the need to rave about a movie that I’ve seen many times, or even grown up with, because it’s one of my faves. And since I currently find myself between televisions, and there’s not much playing at the theatres near me, I figure this is the perfect time to start.
Christopher Nolan is my favourite director. I love every movie I’ve seen by him, which is all of them except for Memento and Following. But if I had to pick my favourite Nolan movie of all time, I’d probably have to go with The Prestige.
For those who haven’t seen it, this is a movie about two magicians in Victorian-era London who start out as friends, but become enemies when one of them sees his wife die and blames the other. They start a rivalry that becomes increasingly deadly as each magician goes to more and more desperate lengths to destroy the other’s career.
There are so many reasons why this movie is amazing. One is the acting. The main characters are played by Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine, and they’re all amazing as usual. Christian Bale, in particular, gives the most impressive performance I’ve ever seen from him. Granted, I haven’t seen all of his more acclaimed performances, but the role he has in this movie is so incredibly challenging, and he pulls it off so well, that it’s hard to imagine anything topping it. Also, this is one of the few movies where you get to hear his real accent, so that’s fun. Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine are also amazing, but then, when are they ever not?
I really like movies that make me think, which is a big reason why I love Nolan so much. Like many of his other films, this one left me scratching my head, trying to piece together the clues the director left throughout the story, and really wanting to watch it again immediately. But whereas movies like Inception and Interstellar felt like puzzles to be solved, this movie feels more like a mystery. Everything hinges on the characters’ motivations, and how far they’re willing to go to get what they want, and it all builds up to a truly chilling reveal. The movie’s more than 10 years old, but I still won’t spoil it, because if there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the movie, I would hate to be the person who ruined their experience. It’s one of the best-executed twist endings I’ve ever seen.
I think one reason the ending works so well is the same reason the magicians’ tricks work. At the beginning, Michael Caine explains the three parts of a magic trick: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige (terms which I’m pretty sure were made up for this movie, by the way). They correspond perfectly to the three-act structure of the film. We’re shown an “ordinary” situation–two rivals who want revenge–and then the story does something to it, twisting it in an unexpected way. And then at the end, we get the prestige, in which everything is explained and resolved. Throughout the movie, the screenplay and cinematography use sleight of hand and misdirection just like the two magicians do, to make you think you’re seeing one thing when you’re actually seeing something else. And the resolution, just like in every magic trick, is a lot simpler than you might expect.
I tend to judge screenplays by how well I remember them after seeing a movie. And there are so many lines in this movie that stuck with me long after I watched it. It only took one viewing for me to be able to quote Michael Caine’s opening monologue almost verbatim. There are so many other memorable lines, too: “Exact science is not an exact science.” “No one cares about the man in the box.” “Are you watching closely?” Etc., etc. And hidden within that great dialogue is a ton of subtle foreshadowing and symbolism that you don’t always pick up until the third or fourth viewing.
I also like this movie because I’m a big fan of steampunk–the idea of incorporating sci-fi elements into a Victorian setting. There aren’t enough good movies set in a steampunk world, but The Prestige is one of them. While it doesn’t go too crazy with the gears and gyros, it definitely has some strong steampunk elements to it. Because, oh yeah, did I mention Nikola Tesla is in this movie? Played by David Bowie, of all people? Yep. Anytime you see Tesla in a story that is not based on historical fact, you know some weird, brilliant steampunk stuff is coming. If ever there was a mad scientist in real life, it was Tesla. I love that guy.
But anyway, the heart of this movie is not in its magic tricks and decorations. Once you make it through all the various layers of mystery, it becomes a story about some guys who let an obsession get the better of them. There’s the obvious commentary on the dangers of seeking revenge, but personally, I think this is much more than a revenge movie. It really seems more like an exploration of the dark side of art, especially the performing arts–how the desire to make something beautiful can sometimes drive creators to do very ugly things.
This is a dark movie–probably Nolan’s darkest, that I’ve seen, aside from Insomnia. There’s not really a “hero” to root for, since all the main characters do a lot of awful things, and the ending isn’t exactly the “happily ever after” type. But for me at least, it touches emotional chords that very few other movies do. Usually, when you see movies about making art (which is essentially what this movie is), they portray it as this magical, transformative thing that brings all kinds of beauty to the world. Not that many movies have the guts to point out that art (not to mention the artists who make it) has an ugly side. It can be manipulative and deceptive and even deadly. And is it worth it, in the end? Do we love art and entertainment because it makes us better people and shows us more about the world, or do we just “want to be fooled?”
I don’t know, but every time I watch this movie, I find another piece of it to analyse. It’s a multi-layered story in which every layer is packed with great acting, great writing, great cinematography, and Nikola Tesla as portrayed by David Bowie. I can’t stress that last part enough, because honestly, where else are you ever going to see something as crazy awesome as that?
I’m not going to give grades in my Faves reviews, because it should just be assumed that they’re all A+ unless stated otherwise. This one is truly a masterpiece, and it deserves just as much love as any other Nolan movie, if not more so. If you haven’t seen The Prestige, I’d highly recommend doing so. If you have seen it, I’d highly recommend watching it again.