The Prestige

By Rhett du Pont

Okay, I’m going to get this out of the way early: one of the main questions on my mind when I went to see The Prestige was “How well does this work as a turn-of-the-century Batman vs. Wolverine movie?” The answer is, fairly well, although it’s lead actors are cast against type. Hugh Jackman (you know, the guy who played Wolverine in the X-Men movies and then starred in romantic comedies for a while) is the one driven by an obsessive quest for revenge, relying on theatricality and the assistance of an elderly helper (Micheal Caine, reprising his role as Alfred from Batman Begins) as well as the help of a young, plucky sidekick (Scarlett Johansonn, who has never played Robin in any movie, but would certainly be an interesting choice for the role) while Christian Bale (who played Batman in director Christopher Nolan’s previous movie Batman Begins) is the one who has spring-loaded blades attached to his wrist.

And now, my actual review:
Director Christopher Nolan’s pet themes of artifice and violent, emotionally unbalanced masculinity are perhaps at their purest in his newest movie, The Prestige. The film focuses tightly on an obsessive, ugly rivalry between professional magicians Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale). A large part of the thrill of the film is watching the magicians attempt to one-up each other, both in terms of bigger, better magic shows and more significant public humiliation and injury.
The movie does occasionally require that the audience take the craft of putting on magic shows a little more seriously than most of us would probably care to, and the characters’ extreme behavior occasionally veers out of the realm of human psychology but I’m not sure that the latter of these qualifies as a flaw per se; especially because of the trappings of magic and the minuscule role that everyday life plays in the film, it is easy to see The Prestige as a parable, a sort of Victorian-era mythology as opposed to a story about real people. David Bowie’s inspired cameo role as Nikolas Tesla, who in the context of this movie, is more or less a wizard, does a lot to reinforce this reading. Bowie is one of many in the movie’s showcase of impressive performances. Jackman, Bale, and Caine are all riveting during the screen time the occupy. Scarlett Johansonn is arguably a bit underused in her role as assistant/mistress, where she is more or less an object on display until her final scene.

Perhaps one of the more immediately notable things about The Prestige is the framing devices. The movie begins after Jackman’s death and unfolds almost exclusively through characters reading each other’s diaries (if you want to get technical, the story we observe is Bale reading Jackman’s diary which is largely concerned with Jackman reading Bale’s diary). These framing devices set the groundwork for a series of impressive twists; even most of the movie’s last twenty minutes are spent explaining the twists for the incredibly slow, they are still effective in recontextualizing the story that came before them and in simply creating surprising reveals. I said earlier that The Prestige could be viewed as parable. It is also possible to look at it as a magic trick, skillfully executed.