Christopher Nolan is an intriguing name for me. For a long while, I only knew him as “The Dark Knight trilogy director.” Little did I know that he had a vast collection of films to his name that had nothing to do with superheroes. Or, well, in the case of The Prestige, there’s enough to wonder whether these two leads really are capable of superhuman feats.
I’ve had my eye on this one for a little while. Given my recent track record with Nolan has been a little hit and miss (liked Inception and Dunkirk, but didn’t care for Tenet), I was prepared for anything here. Gracious praise and phenomenal reviews didn’t really mean much to me here. Still, a part of me did wish to be amazed by the magic that was Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale leading together.
“After a tragic accident, two stage magicians in 1890s London engage in a battle to create the ultimate illusion while sacrificing everything they have to outwit each other.” –IMDb
(I’m just gonna do this from now on. Describing the setting was always my least favorite part of these reviews.)
Allow me to elaborate on what I didn’t like about Tenet: It was pretty boring. For as technically solid as it was, with logical structure of plot, action, and its themes, I simply couldn’t connect with it. Artificial, hollow; it lacked a certain “soul” that had me hoping it would end well before its final minutes.
A Trend Continues
My previous paragraph is not to insinuate that The Prestige is entirely boring. However, there was a sizeable portion of the opening act that had a similar passive boredom that plagued Tenet. Maybe it was how grim everything looked or how mumble-y everyone was with their lines. Lots of dialogue build-up—hell, the whole film is build-up—that isn’t particularly engaging.
What also doesn’t help is the manner in which these characters are presented. Jackman and Bale are fairly intriguing characters born of their obsession of magic. Do they seek the same thing from it? How wide is their respect for one another, in comparison to their vitriol? What do they gain from going beyond? Lots of things to analyze with them and their behavior throughout, embellished through their performances.
Other characters, with a debatable exception for Michael Caine, don’t hold as much interest. I’ve heard some criticism directed at Nolan for using emotional stakes like pawns, ironically similar to how the stars do here. Wife and children? Plot devices, rather than actual characters. It always seems to be a dude or multiple dudes getting caught up in things beyond their grasp, while their domestic life suffers because of it.
These “sacrifices” they paint as so terrible are relatable enough. Yet when it comes down to it, they feel placed in as convenient triggers for empathy. Do I really care about these dudes’ wives? Their children? While they have enough prominence in screentime, they don’t really have anything to do other than “Be angry / whatever emotion the situation calls for towards their husbands.” Loses a little of that sentimental oomph. Pretty much only makes the rivalry satisfying.
Though Still Technically Consistent
My preference for films still lean more towards the technical aspect. If acting, framing, cinematography, and other aspects remain well-structured and impressive, I’m willing to give a film value for those on their own. The Prestige does well with these and more, thus becoming hard to argue that it’s a “bad” film, emotional foundation under question or not.
Among the strengths is the progression of the plot. How carefully things are laid out to envelop everything into a tragically gruesome finale. A benefit to having a general knowledge of Nolan’s work means I’m conditioned to not really trust anything. Something is bound to happen that will completely twist things around, pull the rug out from the audience’s feet. Such made it easier to theorize and to pay careful attention to those meticulously hidden clues.
Jackman, Bale, and the minute-by-minute unveiling of the greatest trick of them all. Falling under the “spell” of a magician’s show to believe, even for a second, that things are more extraordinary than reality can provide. Once things began to become more clear, offering a string for the audience to trail, that’s when I was immersed in full. The ending did enough to justify everything, even if I was (somewhat) correct in my assumptions, limiting the surprise.
Breaking it down, The Prestige is a battle between objective triumph and emotional merit. A matter of how you stand on magic, in general. Do you wish to be sucked in, blissfully ignorant, or are you more hardened, picking at what lies underneath? You can accept the story as-is or research the portions that allow it to be a ruse. For me, the weak points lie in how I don’t care for most of the characters.
Among Nolan’s work (from what I’ve seen), this is among the better ones. There’s an intriguing mystique to the world of magic that almost urges people to believe in something more, which is channeled exquisitely here. The male leads are perfect conductors for such volatile feelings, even if they aren’t aided by some shaky foundational additions to the story. Worth a watch… not sure about more than one, but certainly a first.
Final Score: 7/10
The rating for all other films can be found at Letterboxd.
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Thank you for your time. Have a great timezone.