Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Prestige (2006)

"Making something disappear isn't enough;
you have to bring it back."

- In turn-of-the-century London, two rival magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), obsess about upstaging the other to dangerous ends in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige (2006). A film that I suggest you see at least twice, The Prestige first displeased but then intrigued me. I did not care for The Prestige very much the first time around but I ended up liking the film very much after my second viewing - all my questions were answered and I was able to view the film in context with its ending, rather than being fully engaged in its dense plot. The Prestige is a well-made film with many admirable traits; however, I do not think that it is the brilliant film that its reputation suggests.

Although highly touted by fans and critics, the all-star acting in the The Prestige did not particularly impress me. Hugh Jackman has not done anything to impress me and, while his performance here as Robert Angier is easily his best to date in comparison to the rest of his sorry career, he fails to impress here as well if not simply because Jackman seems unable to infuse his characters with any amount of depth. Christian Bale has grown to be considered as one of the best actors of our generation but I disagree. I find Bale to be a hit-or-miss actor; knocking your socks off with one performance (like The Machinist (2004)) and then boring you with another (like Public Enemies (2009)). Bale gives a very disappointing miss here, as he has given some amazing performances in the past but he simply sails through his role in The Prestige with seemingly little feeling at all. And I just felt bad for Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, whose characters are so flat that no amount of talent or effort could really bring them to life.

While neither starring performance is particularly great, all of the characters are just plain unlikable on paper in my opinion. This has nothing to do with the fact that their actions are that are unlikable and deplorable, as I can enjoy characters that are not "good guys" in film (Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men (2007) and Geoffrey Rush's Inspector Javert from Les Misérables (1998) come to mind immediately). It is simply because none of the characters really spoke to me or had anything redeeming or relatable about them at all.

And while the film's famous final twist is shocking, I still do have a bone to pick.... The most shocking part of the twist is that Alfred and Fallon were actually twins the whole time. This is supposed to be the big payoff for the film but when one actually thinks about it, the twist falls apart. The film explains Alfred and Fallon's famous trick and the resulting turmoil in their lives. Each one of the brothers took turns assuming "prestige" duties every other night and therefore had to both live as "Alfred" and "Fallon." Since one loved Sarah and the other loved Olivia, their lives were never complete and generally fell apart when both women became fed up with Alfred's seemingly two-faced nature. They were supposedly forced into this arrangement in order to keep up the illusion - but it was really done for no reason whatsoever. So let me get this straight: Alfred and Fallon have time to be alone by themselves - applying makeup to whoever was going to be Fallon that night, inventing illusions and plotting against Angier - but they could not find the time to be with the woman of their choice? They could have easily stayed with the women they wanted to, all the both of them had to do was say "hey baby, I gotta take a leak" and then come back to each woman as themselves, then just stay the hell away from one another. Bada bing. Problem solved.

The fact that the main characters (and performances of those characters) let me down the most contributes greatly to my unwillingness to name The Prestige as some kind of modern cinematic wonderment. Although I disliked this crucial element in The Prestige and therefore cannot fully join into the chorus of unlimited praise for the film, I would still have to say that it is a very good movie thanks to its other high quality aspects.

My favorite piece of The Prestige is Michael Caine's supporting performance of Cutter. Michael Caine is simply one of my favorite actors of all-time to being with, and his supporting role in The Prestige really highlights why. Caine really lights up the screen and steals every scene away from the Hollywood blockbuster stars. As Cutter, Caine has a very worn and worldly presence throughout the film, really the only character who sees things as they really are, and of course delivers a very layered and likable performance.

Outside of Caine's showing, two more specific things about The Prestige are most definitely apparent to me: 1.) The writing is great and 2.) the production values are stunning. With Christopher Nolan directing as well as co-writing, and Jonathan Nolan co-writing as well, the Nolan Brothers make one thrilling on-screen adaptation to of Christopher Priest's novel about the dangers of obsession. Each twist leads to more twists which proceed to even more twists as each scene builds more and more towards the shocking ending. The visuals are great: the set designs, costumes and makeup are also top-notch in quality and there is no questioning why Wally Pfister received an Academy Award nomination for his cinematography work on the film.

I like the overall story, the technical aspects are very admirable and I cannot say enough good things about Michael Caine's supporting performance - but a few aspects remain that are not particularly enjoyable or interesting. The Prestige is a really good film but it seems to be receiving some sort of modern masterpiece status from many moviegoers - and.... I guess I just cannot agree.

CBC Rating: 8/10

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