Monday 11 February 2008

The Prestige (2006)

We open with a guide to the disappearing magic trick known as the Transported Man. Apparently it consists, like all magic tricks, of three parts: the pledge, the turn and the prestige. The pledge is when the magician shows the audience something ordinary (like a man), the turn is when he makes it become something extraordinary (like a man disappearing from a cage being battered by lightning from a tesla coil) and the pledge is when he successfully concludes it all (like by bringing the man back). In the example we watch while this is being explained to us, the magician and transported man is Robert Angier, who quickly dies in a huge tank of water underneath the stage.

Our guide unsurprisingly given the voice turns out to be Michael Caine, a theatrical producer and constructor of magic tricks by the name of John Cutter, and he's explaining not just to us but to a jury at the trial of Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale. He's a magician accused by Cutter of murdering Angier, played by Hugh Jackman. Everything points to his guilt. He was there watching the man die, he had reason and even the choice of method is appropriate. The two magicians have a rivalry, all sparked by the death of Angier's wife through, you guessed it, drowning in a huge tank of water. At this point Borden and Angier were partners, working on the same tricks but a disagreement on which knot to use leads to her death and the two fall out with a vengeance. The rivalry is bitter and dangerous.

Watching the IMDb Top 250 list has taught me that many recent films appear there but quickly disappear. The ones that arrive but don't depart either tend to have a good reason to stay there or are subject to dubious abiding publicity and will take a lot longer to fade from memory. I'm not too surprised from director Christopher Nolan's previous work that this one fits in the former category. Following and Memento were unique films, in an age when there's no such thing any more, and this fits pretty well in that category too.

It's also based on a novel by Christopher Priest, a science fiction writer of renown and that's refreshing. I've long wondered why cinema, an obvious platform for far more than sixties monster movies, doesn't do that more often. There's almost nothing out there in the modern science fiction genre on film that isn't based on something by Philip K Dick and that's a crime. I grew up on serious science fiction and there are so many stories out there that deserve cinematic treatment. The optimist in me sees that the success of this one prompts a reevaluation of that concept but the pessimist in me doesn't believe that there are enough serious filmmakers interested in it. At least Christopher Nolan makes one.

And that's just the people behind the screen. The ones in front of it are impeccable too. The names are well known ones: backing up Caine, Bale and Jackman are people as lauded as Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis and David Bowie, who does an awesome job as Nikola Tesla, who is treated with respect due. Those I didn't know are as good: people like Rebecca Hall, who has plenty of acting heritage through her parents. These actors have a difficult task in a film like this, where the point is the story, which mirrors the guide we're given to begin. Yet they universally do their job very very well indeed. The only thing wrong with the film is that I figured out whodunit, but there was still more to come that I hadn't seen and I'm still filled with admiration.

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