Movie Review | The Prestige
Movie summary: After a tragic accident, two stage magicians engage in a battle to create the ultimate illusion while sacrificing everything they have to outwit each other. (IMDb)
Usually, when people say that you need to watch a movie twice to figure it out, it's because the movie is so densely-packed with twists and turns or lengthy exposition. Or maybe because it sets itself up as a puzzle for the viewer to figure out and you want to go back and see if you missed any clues. Or, sometimes, a movie is so incoherent that you need multiple watches to make sense of it at all.
You could argue that The Prestige falls into the second category, but I would counter this by saying you'd already need to know something about the story and how it unfolds. For anyone going in blind, it's simply a movie about feuding magicians, Borden (Christian Bale) and Angier (Hugh Jackman), in 1890s London and does nothing to dispel this illusion for quite some time.
Sorry to spoil it in the most minor way possible, but the second time you watch this movie, you'll realise just how much almost every scene is building towards the grand finale and reveals that are barely hinted at the first time through. Watching The Prestige again for this post, I was amazed at how much of the dialogue in just the first twenty minutes relates to or references how the story ends.
And the movie is very much like the magic tricks employed by Borden and Angier throughout, setting up a premise, giving it a twist to make you wonder what's going to happen, and then the big finish as it all comes together. And this doesn't just relate to the structure of the plot, but the characters too, with both Borden and Angier disguising themselves to play multiple roles for entirely different reasons.
Why they do this is something best left for new watchers to find out, so I won't spoil it here, but all I will say is that their disguises aren't just to fool the other characters in the movie. I will say that some of the disguises are pretty transparent and you do wonder how the other characters don't recognise them at times - one of The Prestige's very few weak points.
As for Bale and Jackman's performances, they're both excellent, proving their skill as actors to make you entirely forget that they're probably most famous for playing Batman and Wolverine. Neither Borden nor Angier are entirely likeable, which would usually be enough to put me off if there's no-one to really root for, but they're so interesting and the dynamic between them so charged that you can't help but remain utterly invested in their lives.
Another minor weakness for The Prestige is that it almost feels like it's trying to 'both sides' the characters, whereas I feel that Borden is comfortably worse than Angier, with his accidental killing of Angier's wife kicking off the rivalry between them. Angier seeks revenge out of grief, which is understandable, but Borden seems to derive pleasure from going back to exact revenge of his own.
Both men end up obsessed with besting the other to the point that they drive everyone else in their lives away from them, but the negatives of Borden's actions feel far more cruel than Angier's. The latter may eventually plumb greater moral and ethical depths, but the movie isn't about that and never feels quite as dark as Borden's personal, vindictive behaviour.
One shining light (a pun you'll get after watching the movie) is David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, who Angier hires to help him over come Borden. Much like he often personally came across in reality, Bowie plays Tesla almost as if he were a higher being with knowledge beyond what humanity is capable of and technology it should never possess.
The Tesla scenes and how he helps Angier tips The Prestige into science-fiction territory, but Bowie as Tesla is so unlike anyone else in the movie that you ultimately accept that he's capable of what he does for Angier. It's a very fine line to walk and Bowie does it so well, while providing a level of humanity for someone who seems so detached from civilisation like Tesla.
And that's not to ignore the rest of the cast either, with Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall all delivering the goods. Hall's character, Sarah, is the most innocent of the three and I would say the most genuinely good person in the movie - but the story that unfolds really isn't the place for nice people and she leaves the action distressingly early.
I can imagine that The Prestige will annoy a lot of people with how everything unfolds, despite the movie flat out telling the audience to pay attention - "are you watching closely?" - and being about performers whose lives revolve around misdirection and making the impossible appear possible. This definitely isn't a movie to just have on while messing around with your phone or as background noise - you'll simply miss too much without even knowing there was anything to miss.
The Prestige is possibly my favourite of Christopher Nolan's movies and I've immensely enjoyed it every time I've watched it. It's genuinely astonishing how much of the dialogue effectively flat-out states what the movie is about and where the story is headed while still feeling entirely believable for the scene. Absolutely watch it a second time and see just how much is given away in the first act without having let you know it the first time.