“I can’t remember to forget you,” Leonard Shelby’s voice-over says of his dead wife in Memento, and even though Charlie Koffman has his characters poke fun at screenwriters who use voiceovers in Adaptation, Christopher Nolan crafts them so that they convey such a lonely obsession that we never even question their legitimacy. And it’s intentional irony that Nicolas Cage’s Adaptation character speaks often in the very voice-over that is so bemoaned. There were times during Hugh Jackman’s voice-overs in The Prestige where one could almost believe that Guy Pearce was hired to do them. Nolan uses these voice-overs to symbolize his character’s isolation within his own head, conveying to the viewer that by becoming obsessed with something, you are essentially alienating everything else in your life.
Obsession is a theme that Nolan portrays well. Leonard Shelby is told by Teddy that he no longer knows who he is, indicating that one can be defined by his own obsession. Shelby is so set on finding his wife’s killer that (spoilers!) it no longer matters if he finds the right one. In the case of Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), he too is consumed with an obsession so acute that he often sacrifices his own wealth and happiness to achieve it.
Because there are so many twists to the actual plot of The Prestige, following it for too long drags the reader so far into Spoiler Land that it seems futile to do so. Add to this the fact that it’s actually difficult at times to follow the linear progression of what is happening in present time because of the constant use of flashbacks, then one can truly understand the difficulty of providing even a basic premise to the film.
The Prestige is the story of two rival magicians, Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), who essentially progress through their entire careers trying to simultaneously out-do and sabotage each other. The crux of this rivalry lies in the debate of whether or not Borden is responsible for Angier’s wife’s death in a magic trick which went fatally wrong. How it went wrong–Borden’s stubborn insistence on using a different kind of knot when binding her hands together–represents his inventive resistance to the norm. It is Borden’s belief that magicians should be continually refining their acts to push through to new levels of greatness; he isn’t satisfied with what he considers boring, stale tricks. Angier, on the other hand, is less inventive but more given to the theatrical nature needed by a good magician. In his mind, the trick itself isn’t what matters, but rather how one delivers it. Borden, though his tricks are easily more amazing, doesn’t know how to handle the crowd, and the viewer can see this plainly with the rather dull settings of his magic performances.
Borden eventually creates a new trick called “The Transporting Man,” which causes Angier to digress from a mere rivalry to an unhealthy obsession. He can’t figure out how the “The Transporting Man” is done, so he makes it his life’s almost-spiritual quest to unlock its mystery. This segways into another rivalry between the famous scientist Thomas Edison and another scientist named Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). Their scientific battles are juxtaposed against Borden and Angrier’s own, and so Angier naturally takes on a kind of comradery with Tesla in their quests to out-do their opponents. How they help each other do this lies so deep within the realms of Spoiler Land that we dare not venture that far.
All of this is told in flashback form. In the present, Borden is in prison, and the viewer deduces early on that he was framed at some point for murder during the mental battle of the wits with Angier. Because that’s what this is, a mental chess game, where moves are often made in the anticipation of how the other will respond, allowing for a plethora of surprises and the notion that nothing is as it truly seems. Borden often plants misleading clues along the way to throw Angier off his scent, and the viewer is forced to follow Angier down every path, even the ones that turn up cold.
The Prestige is easily one of the best films this year. As one reviewer put it, it’s the movie that gives Nolan enough room to fully extend himself so that his complex narrative can be realized. The movie is over two hours long because it needs to be that length. It’s multi-layered and has the room to slowly unfold itself, and though a keen viewer will be able to guess several of the twists before they happen, he or she won’t feel let down by it since Nolan never makes the story hinge off the twist, as is often the case with directors like M. Night Shyamalan. No, the entire story rests upon the weight of obsession, and how it slowly becomes its own antagonist, a beast that will never release its stronghold from the neck of its own creator, not until he’s destroyed by that very obsession for which he was defined.
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