In keeping with the Shark's last cinematographicus entry, here's review of another movie about stage magic. No, it's not A Very Siegfried and Roy Christmas or David Copperfield live at the Acropolis. Nor is it Too Legit: The Harry Houdini Story. It's Christopher Nolan's The Prestige. This movie is like The Illusionist because stage magic plays a role in the plot. It's unlike The Illusionist because it is good.
Constants in Christopher Nolan movies appear to be Christian Bale, Michael Caine, flashbacks, themes of manipulation and obsession, foreign prisons, and flights of technological fancy. The Prestige heaps on a hefty dose of all of the above. The basic idea is that a tragic event divides two friends, it grows into a high-profile stage rivalry, and ends up consuming one character whose passion for revenge exceeds everything. Throw in a little techno-fantasy, and there you have it. Basically, it's what would result if The Phantom of the Opera had a child with The Count of Monte Cristo and the child were raised by H.G. Wells.
A major strength of The Prestige is its cast. David Bowie as the semi-mad scientist Nikola Tesla was a casting triumph. Scarlet Johansen was perfectly adequate. She said little and portrayed even less. Her character is ittle more than a pretty face; it was a role well-adapted to her acting abilities. Caine, Bale, and Jackman all held up their reputations for excellence.
Now on to dramatic structure. Most films are linear. They primarily rely on the talents of the actors or the wittiness of the dialogue. Think Shakespeare adaptations, Jane Austen adaptations, and most romantic comedies (most which are essentially variations on Austen or Shakespeare). Others jump around a lot because they're constantly trying to surprise you. Think of the Mission: Impossible franchise, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which both accelerated this technique increasingly until it spun out of control. Both the linear structure and the surprise structure, though, rely on a passive relationship with the viewer. The viewer is there to be entertained, scared, delighted, or surprised, but not to take an active role in the development of the plot.
A third category of films, a great example of which is a lesser known film called The Spanish Prisoner(1998) (which boasts Steve Martin in a non-comedic villain's role) are puzzlers. The plot twists and turns, but not just to give you the cheap thrill of a surprise. Instead the plot convolutions are there to challenge you to unwind them. Hitchcock, for example, was a master of the puzzler. M. Night Shyamalan does this with mixed success, but sometimes his plots degenerate into a O. Henry style surprise ending. Unlike the linear structure and the surprise structure, the puzzler relies on an active relationship with the viewer. It demands more of the viewer because he is called upon to be engaged in the unravelling of the plot.
The Prestige is a puzzler. And as such, it engages in that favorite child of postmodernism, meta-fiction: a movie about magic tricks is itself a trick. It challenges the audience to not be fooled by the deliberate distractions and obfuscations. At the same time, it accuses the audience of wanting to be fooled and of engaging, albeit unconsciously, in willful self-deception. Or perhaps more accurately, willful cooperation with an outside deceiver. Nolan's background in English literature at University College, London, may be the source of this meta-fictitious whimsy. My only critique is that if you don't really concentrate (and maybe even rewind once or twice) it might be unclear at some points whether the action is taking place in London or Colorado Springs.
One of the film's most interesting features is its deliberate ambiguity. Nolan gives hints at possible answers to the film's riddle, but does not commit the film overwhelmingly to one answer or explanation. As a result, he allows physical explanations (stage technique, biology, or technology), and also metaphysical explanations (magic, or technological wizardry) to act as possible candidates to fill in the mysterious blank. This ability to write a compelling, but ultimately ambivalent story is considered a hallmark of great art. Keats called Shakespeare's ability to do so "negative capability." The author allows interpretive choice by putting enough evidence into the plot to support more than one interpretive conclusion. But negative capability is more than vagueness or obscurity because it isn't a lack of a conclusion but a rather a possibility of multiple conclusions. K-Pax (2001) does this well. To write this way without being self-contradictory takes considerable skill.
I was also struck by the way that Hugh Jackman's character reminded me of Mitt Romney, but perhaps that's a subject for another day.
Bottom line: The Prestige is worth the $20 I gave the Target Corporation to own it. It is entertaining, well-cast, and there are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing without sacrificing continuity or believability. It is also a fun riddle. Go see it if you haven't already.