Saturday, November 11, 2006

Nothing Up Their Sleeves

So - a question. Is a movie with a major twist in its tail a failure if you see that twist coming?

Usually, probably.

With Christopher Nolan's The Prestige...well, that's the trick, isn't it.

Christian Bale (cockney chancer) and Hugo Jackman (all-American showman) face off as rival magicians in Victorian London. And it's magnificently painful to watch.

As one punishes the other back and forth - initially over the death of Jackman's wife, but later over pride, obsession and downright bad habit - we watch. And hurt. Blood flows quickly and sharply. Limbs break, appendages are sliced off - and, usually, there's a full-house audience to see it happen.

It's about obsession, then. And deception, naturally enough. It's also about love. Male-female (three female leads - two glamorous assistants and a viewer) and familial (father-daughter, father-figure-to-son).

The layered storytelling might lead you to doubt some of this. Nolan directs with the same flash-back-forward-and-sideways style that served him so well in Memento, Insomnia and even Batman Begins - so much so that some viewers will think that THIS is the trick.

But, actually, the framing devices (TWO journals, a pair of teasers up-front, and ruthless intercutting throughout) are just that. Nolan cuts, as Walter Murch always taught us - with the EMOTION.

His photography is always crisp, but it's not where the meat of the storytelling happens. Nolan uses the edit like Ridley Scott or Brian DePalma uses the camera. THAT'S where his particular brand of magic happens.

Events, feelings, moments are effortlessly joined. And somehow you never lose track of where or WHEN you are. Filming the whole thing with little interest in 'ooh, another period detail!', there's a vibrant energy to the look that put me in mind of Michael Winterbottom's Jude. It's modern-day just happens to be a hundred years ago.

The performances are joyous (yes, even the bizarre combination of David Bowie and Andy 'Gollum' Serkis). Sympathies bounce between out two male leads and they each out-anguish and out-obsess one-another. Meanwhile we ALWAYS feel for the real victims - the loved ones.

Scarlett Johansson seems to be getting some knocks, but I found her coping well with an English accent while forever seeming TOO luscious to deserve these men (and too marginalised by them both). That her role is not more tragic is down to the script's own agenda, not any particular failing on her part.

(And yes, I know - this is my second positive Scarlett write-up after The Black Dahlia. I'm far from being her biggest fan, but twice on the run I just happen to have found her ideally suited to the film she's in. Sue me.)

But we have two other female leads that NOBODY is talking about, but who arguable carry far more weight and significance.

Piper Perabo, the wife Jackman (and the audience) loses, manages to be so much more than character motivation. You love her as he does, or at least like her a lot, and you miss her when she goes. Rebecca Hall, meanwhile, becomes the wife to Bale's struggling innovator - and, again, does way more with the 'you're losing your family to your obsession' role than anyone could have expected.

These fantastic, amazing women surround them (not to mention Caine's doting mentor). That they can't see past their rivalry...well, that's what makes this whole thing a tragedy.

Still, let's not dump a genre label on it - it's also a gothic horror tale, a period drama, and (kinda) a science fiction story. It is just...The Prestige.

And yes, I'm afraid you WILL spot the twist. Moreover, you'll spot it at the one-hour mark. And just when you expect it to be revealed, the film just carries on.

It's the first time Nolan has missed his mark. Usually he's the first to be a step ahead. And if this were a lesser movie, the whole thing would end right then and there.

Thankfully there are other surprises in store, other pennies to drop, and further depths to plumb. Every one worth the ticket price.

So, while you may feel like you just saw the magician with a dove up his sleeve, you can still enjoy the rest of the show. You can even admire the dove trick when it finally happens.

And applaud.


At Fri Jan 26, 04:52:00 pm, Anonymous ak said...

Loved the review; interesting way of working in the smaller details of the film (that work so well) in your piece.

I liked your blog so much I've even added it as a "Site I Like" on my homepage:

At Tue Mar 27, 09:30:00 am, Anonymous Eric said...

I loved the movie and was hella surprised in the end (I never saw it coming).

I guess I must be dumb.


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