As another feature of the blog I’m going to be writing mini-essays about my top 20 favourite films of all time. I am in no way saying these are the best films ever made – they are the films that have resonated with me in ways others have not. Some of the consensus greatest films ever made (The Godfather, Goodfellas, Citizen Kane) will have just missed out. Some others (Star Wars, The Sound of Music) won’t come anywhere near it. Feel free to offer your thoughts on these films, suggest your favourites, or even guess at the films yet to come! I hope these pieces will act as entertaining and mildly insightful companion pieces to the films listed here.
DIRECTED BY CHRISTOPHER NOLAN
SCREENPLAY BY CHRISTOPHER AND JONATHAN NOLAN
BASED ON THE PRESTIGE, A NOVEL BY CHRISTOPHER PRIEST
STARRING CHRISTIAN BALE, HUGH JACKMAN, MICHAEL CAINE, SCARLETT JOHANNSON, DAVID BOWIE
I can remember when I first saw the trailer for ‘The Prestige’. My great friend and fellow film addict Nick and I were watching a whole bunch of movie trailers, commenting on how good or otherwise they looked, before happening on to a trailer for a film we had not heard of – ‘The Prestige.’
Two minutes later, we reacted in the same way – “That. Looks. Awesome.” It was like a giant box of cinematic treats – we were fans of Christopher Nolan’s previous work, huge fans of actors Bale, Jackman and Caine, Scarlett Johansson was an appealing addition for two teenage boys… this was a movie we were extremely excited to see.
See it we did, and love it I did.
Let’s revisit it, shall we?
THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD – DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM
CUTTER (MICHAEL CAINE): Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige"
I love The Prestige for the sheer simplicity of making a movie about a magic trick follow the structure of a magic trick. All through the film characters constantly talk about how once you know how a trick is done it never seems as impressive as before – and sure enough, when the film’s own trick is revealed, people were disappointed. So is that the film’s fault for crossing its own boundaries – or is it intentionally illustrating the very point its characters are making? My faith in Christopher Nolan would suggest the latter – but really it’s just great fun to watch.
Watching The Prestige a second time – which I did before writing this – is a strange, almost embarrassing experience. I’ve always been terrible at picking the twist in a film – even basic plot diversions in romantic comedies tend to trip me up (Jude Law has kids in The Holiday! – OMG!) – and I didn’t see the Prestige’s twist coming for a moment. Watching it a second time, it becomes painfully obvious that Christian Bale is actually playing – I warned you about spoilers – twin brothers. The character of Fallon looks like Bale, Rebecca Hall’s character constantly foreshadows the fact she’s married to two different men, the trick at the beginning of the film with the two birds – one dead, one alive – is poignant in retrospect, etc. etc. You wonder, upon discovering the film’s secret, how you didn’t spot it all along. That is absolutely the best kind of twist, and even if you saw it coming, you have to admire the director’s craft and bravery in hiding it in plain sight. Roger Ebert called it a cheat – but how can it be a cheat when it was so clear all along?
One criticism of the film that I’ve read is that it is gimmicky. Well, yeah, but sometimes you have to just sit back and admire a well-crafted gimmick. The key to this film is that it is a gimmick worth experiencing a second time and another few times after that. It’s a story of competition and betrayal, beautifully acted and directed, and another in a series of terrific, well told stories from one of the most consistent directors in the world.
Furthermore, it’s not exactly like the film is thematically weak. Obsessions, competition, sacrifice – they’re all there in spades. My favourite thematic element is about what a man will do for his art – the level of sacrifice one must go to in order to be a performer. It’s highlighted in the Chinese magician who pretends to be old and decrepit in order to make his tricks work and tragically further illustrated in the character of Borden, who sacrifices his brother and inadvertently his wife – and Angier, who sacrifices himself, over and over again.
(And Cutter, who sacrifices a bird.)
Before I address another few criticisms of the film, I’d like to talk about the acting. Christian Bale, so good as Batman in Batman Begins, returns to the Christopher Nolan directorsphere and crafts an entirely different persona to the one in that film. He manages, appropriately enough, to create a character totally unlikeable and alternately totally charming. It’s not his best performance ever, but it’s a very good one. On the other hand, I think this might be one of Hugh Jackman’s finest performances. For some reason the former Oscar host has never troubled the nominations himself (and is unlikely to do so with a movie like Real Steel) but here he’s very good. Haughty, sympathetic, morally questionable, obsessive, charming, terrified and petty, he manages to play every note given to him by the script and Nolan. Michael Caine is also great, with a deep sense of melancholy in the smaller moments, like when he tells Angier that drowning is not like going home, but rather agony. Scarlett Johansson is lovely as always but struggles to really come across as a woman of the period – whereas Rebecca Hall convinces us of that every moment she is onscreen.
I’m not an expert of directorial technique but you do notice similarities when watching Nolan films – the way he uses sharp cuts and short scenes to maintain our interest especially struck me. The non-linear narrative structure will surprise no one who has ever seen Memento.
So why does The Prestige kick off my top 20 instead of featuring even higher in it? Firstly, some of the criticisms leveled at the film are accurate – particularly that none of the characters are particularly redeemable. Alfred Borden has the obligatory daughter character to give him motivation to stay alive, but for the most part everyone is morally questionable. That does make the film a difficult one to get truly involved in – you’re very much an observer in this particular story rather than someone with an emotional investment. The sci-fi element, which sneaks up on you – the movie is never advertised as having it – suffers from being little underdeveloped. I think David Bowie is charismatic but a little distracting as Tesla – you can’t help but think ‘Hey, its David Bowie!’ – but overall this is a fantastic film. It’s a hard film to love, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it.
I was never going to not like this film, but like every Christopher Nolan film I’ve ever seen, I didn’t expect to love it as much as I do. Awesome, tense, exciting, well acted, thematically deep and brilliantly tricky, The Prestige comes in at number 20 on my top 20 favourite films of all time.
- I was spending the whole movie thinking how bad Hugh Jackman’s accent was before remembering that his character isn’t actually American, so that’s perfectly acceptable.
- The film has one of my favourite actors in a smaller role – Roger Rees as Owens the lawyer. I could watch him in anything.
- Hey, there’s Gil Chesterton from Frasier! He’s actually quite good!
- The score – something I rarely actively notice when watching a film- is really great and the costumes are fantastic.
- Scarlett Johansson in a corset is very rarely a bad idea when promoting one’s film. Her character is not nearly as much fun. In fact, I can’t remember a female character in a Nolan film that has been much chop. I’ll push that thought out of my head for the moment.
- Love that opening scene. A whole bunch of hats and Christian Bale’s voiceover – ‘are you watching closely.’
- As far as I can tell, Rebecca Hall and Michael Caine are the only primary actors performing in their native accent.
- Similarly to Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman with his shirt off is probably not the world’s worst promotional image.
- The last scene with all the Algiers in all the tanks (in all the world) is a really, really creepy image. Would have been creepier (though completely insane) if his eyes had opened.
- I have a pretty big fear of drowning, so those scenes are hard to watch.
- The actress who plays Angier’s doomed lover is Piper Perabo, famous primarily for Coyote Ugly and now on a TV show, Covert Affairs, for which she was bafflingly nominated for a Golden Globe.
- I always feel like Hugh Jackman should start singing in any film he’s in, but I guess I can wait for Real Steel. He’s bound to sing in that, right?
- Prestige is one of those words that looks weird if you look at it for too long.