Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Prestige (4½ Stars)

I remember seeing a trailer for this film in the cinema a few years ago. Based on what I saw, probably the same trailer I'm linking to here, it didn't seem interesting. A tail of rivalry between two stage magicians? Yawn. Set in London in the 1890's? I don't know how I stayed awake for the main feature. I have a thing about period dramas set in Victorian England. Somehow the whole society disturbs me. The gentlemen dressed in black suits with top hats. The ladies dressed in countless layers of clothing that must have taken hours to get into. The common people in dirty clothes and rags. Nobody in between, everyone is at one extreme or the other. In today's talk the word "gentleman" is used to refer to a man who treats women well, but in Victorian days it referred to a man who dressed in a certain way, because it was assumed that any man who dressed well would act in a civilised manner. Even today, in England at least, there are leftovers of this meaning. Though not impossible, it's not common to refer to a man who dresses in scruffy clothes as a gentleman.

Maybe that's my problem with the whole Victorian era. Unless the weather dictates otherwise, I wear jeans and a t-shirt every day. I only wear a suit to weddings and funerals. Having to live in the Victorian age would have been a horror for me. All those black suits and top hats? Awful! And yet I like to keep myself clean and tidy. I wouldn't have liked to wear dirty rags like a commoner either. I would have liked to be a middle case, the case between the two extremes that didn't exist.

Recently the film was strongly recommended to me, so I gave it a chance. And I wasn't disappointed, despite the Victorian setting. The big name actors, Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine and David Bowie, carry a well written story to perfection. But first let me explain the film's title, using the words of Michael Caine as Cutter, because it's a word I'd never heard used in this context:

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".

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, two junior magicians starting their career as assistants to a master magician. Michael Caine plays Cutter, an "engineer" who prepares tricks for a magician behind the stage. Cutter also acts as a father figure and adviser to both the young men throughout the film. One day a magic trick goes wrong and Angier's wife dies during a performance, drowning to death.

Both young men become magicians in their own right. Borden is technically better at performing tricks, but Angier is a better stage man, more entertaining to the audience. Angier blames Borden for his wife's death, so he disguises himself and sneaks into Borden's performances to sabotage his tricks, even to the extent of  trying to kill his rival before the eyes of the public, making it look like an accident.

This all changes when Alfred Borden begins to perform a spectacular new trick, "The Transported Man", in which a man disappears from one side of the stage and reappears at the other side of the stage less than a second later. Angier becomes obsessed with this trick, and his desire to learn its secret becomes more important than his revenge. But the biggest trick of all lies ahead. Angier dies in his quest and Borden is wrongly sentenced to death for his murder. Borden remains calm in prison and promises to return from the dead. Can Angier do the same?

None of what I've written is really a spoiler, because the film starts with Angier's death and tells the rest of the story in flashbacks, jumping backwards and forwards through time. This is my only real criticism of what is otherwise a close to perfect film. Some films profit from being told out of sequence. It heightens the suspense for the viewer wanting to know how things resulted in the scene we see at the beginning. I don't think that's the case here. The actual story behind the film is very simple. It wouldn't have lost anything of the drama or suspense by telling it in the order it happened. The lack of chronology just makes the story unnecessarily complicated. Nevertheless, it's a great film worth watching.

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