Friday, October 20, 2006
But what The Prestige and filmmaker Christopher Nolan seem to have forgotten about magic and illusion is the very important element of misdirection. Without misdirection, an audience is bound to discover the trick and not be impressed. As a filmmaker, Nolan has been pretty good about misdirection. In his first film The Following , a character starts to stalk another character only to discover that he is actually the one being stalked. For Memento , Nolan used the narrative gimmick of telling the story in reverse to hook the audience but the device proved to be less important than the tantalizing themes he served up about the lengths to which we go to deceive ourselves. Both films led us to believe we were getting one thing and ended up surprising us with something else. As Nolan has moved to bigger budgets and more mainstream projects, his style and approach have become more direct. Insomnia and Batman Begins have little misdirection, they deliverwith differing degrees of successwhat they promise.
Christian Bale displays some sleight of hand in The Prestige.
The problem with The Prestige is that it so clearly lays out its plan to present its tale like the magic trick explained in the opening scene that we start to look immediately for what the Turn will be and what the Prestige will be. We are looking for the gimmick, and we can find it fairly early on. The press materials implore critics not to spoil the film by revealing the "deceptions" at the heart of the film. But less than halfway through the film many viewers will experience that a-ha moment when all is clear. It's a moment of satisfaction that you have figured out the magician's secret coupled with the sad disappointment that you have not been fooled and now have to sit through the rest of the show with no surprises.
The Prestige has some promising elements and a fine cast of actors (in addition to Caine are Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie and Hugh Jackman). But the film lacks the elegance and showmanship needed to pull off a true cinematic magic trick. One of the problems is that aside from the central illusion that the two magicians are fighting over, there is no real story. At the end, Nolan tries to invest the characters with complexity and conflicts but this comes too late and as an afterthought. We needed that richness of character earlier on to make us care about these people, not at the end when the film is wrapping up.
Christian Bale in The Prestige.
For comparison, think about this cinematic sleight of hand. When Neil Jordan made
The Crying Game
, the audience, like the main character played by Forest Whitaker, was fooled into thinking that the character of Dil (played by Jaye Davidson) was a woman. We were shocked to discover half way through the film that Dil was a man. But the characters were so richly drawn and we were so involved in their fates that this twist only further hooked us in the story. The discovery of the deception made the film better and made viewers want to see it again to consider how they could have been so duped. In
, discovery of the deception brings a sigh of disappointment rather than a sense of satisfaction or admiration. The disappointment comes from not having been better fooled by Nolan. Being fooled by a trick or an illusion can produce a wonderful sense of delight and make you ponder for a moment that maybe real magic does exist. You want to know the secret, yet you dont because you know that the moment you know the truth, that sense of awe will evaporate and youll be reminded of the rules that govern reality. Part of the problem is that in order to guard the twist, Nolan ends up shortchanging the characters. If Nolan had been less concerned with presented a film that tries to fool his audience and more concerned with hos obsessed his two lead characters are and what they are willing to sacrifice for their craft, then we would have had a much richer and more rewarding film.
The Prestige sets a hefty task for itself to pull off and it simply doesn't have the skill to accomplish real cinematic magic. There's an interesting tale lurking inside this film, but Nolan doesnt extract it. These characters are more interesting than their superficial treatment suggests and there's a truly dark comment on the cruel lengths people will go to in order to be the best, but all this is lost as Nolan focuses on his cinematic sleight of hand.
The Prestige (rated PG-13) serves up an enticing Pledge, teases us with a bit of a Turn but fails to deliver on the final act. It insulates itself from specific criticism because to do so would reveal too many of its secrets and wouldnt allow viewers to try the film for themselves without having it spoiled. So go with the expectation of being amazed but be prepared to be disappointed.
Companion viewing: Memento, The Following, The Crying Game