Are You Watching Closely?
It's fair to say that Batman Begins was something of a revelation upon its release. Directed by Christopher NolanMade famous when his second film, Memento, became an art-house hit, Nolan became a household name with his Dark Knight trilogy, quickly becoming one of Hollywoods biggest directors., this BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. put to shame the previous two movies directed by Joel Schumacher. Those films with kitschy, silly, and dumb. Batman Begins took the Caped Crusader and gave him a grounded, serious origin that truly fit the character. It was dramatic, it was interesting, and it was everything fans wanted from a Batman film on the big screen.
As a follow up, Nolan... didn't immediately direct another Batman. Instead he convinced Warner Bros. to let him direct another screenplay he'd written with his brother, Johnathan, leading to The Prestige. Instead of the grounded world of Gotham City we had a dark and twisty tale of two magicians in early 1900s England. And yet, for all the differences in location and subject matter, the film still felt very much of a piece with Nolan's films of the era. It had his eye for detail, his controlled directorial style, in precise camera work. Sitting, as it does, between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, The Prestige was the film that cemented, for me, Nolan as a director to watch going forward.
The film opens with two up-and-coming magicians -- Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), soon to be "The Great Danton", and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), who will eventually go by the stage name "The Professor" -- already in something of a rivalry. Angier is a performer, a showman, and he has a love for stagecraft even while he uses tricks devised by others. Borden, meanwhile, is a natural magician, great at devising the actual tricks, but he lacks the stage presence. His tricks are great but no one can truly appreciate the skill involved in what he's done. The come from opposite sides of the magical world, but it's tragedy that will soon tie them into a long rivalry for years to come.
It starts when they both work for another magician as "plants" in the audience. During a water tank trick, where Angier's wife, Julia (Piper Perabo), is the woman that goes into the tank night after night, Borden ties her hands (as he should) but he may or may not have tied a knot that wouldn't work in the tick. She drowns, Angier blames Borden, and from that point forward the hate between them grows. Angier foils a bullet catch trick at one of Borden's performances, blowing off two of the man's fingers. Borden ruins Angier's opening night at a big theater, compromising a trick and getting a woman's caught in the device, crushing them. Back and forth they each go, attacking the other, attempting to ruin the other man. All until Borden is brought up on charges for Angier's murder, a crime he swears he didn't commit. Is Borden innocent or is it all another trick, the last trick Angier will ever play?
Told across three different time periods in the lives of these two men, The Prestige is film about obsession. We see Borden's obsession with Angier lead to him being brought up on charges for murder (in the opening scene of the film, set near the end of the timeline). We see Angier's obsession with Border grows, leading him to steal tricks, to plant secrets, to try everything he can to ruin him. And we see both of them, obsessed with tricks, with maintaining illusions, with proving they're the best in their craft. Although it doesn't make it out that all magicians are obsessed lunatics, the film does make a solid case that these two men were committed too much not only to their craft but to each other as well. Their rivalry could end them both.
The three timelines adds a needed hook to the film. While the movie would probably be pretty good were it told in order, from the beginning of the careers for these two men, through their lives and then many twists and turns they take, by setting the film in three time periods, having the story cross back and forth it keeps you hooked in all the events, trying to piece how it all builds together. Borden in prison reading Angier's journal, reading about Angier reading Borden's older journal, means each man is trying to piece together the secrets of the other. It's a feint, a misdirection of a sort, that lets the mystery build.
Fans of the book, of course, will note that the book was told, in many places, as excerpts from the journals of these two men. While the film did change a number of details from the novel (getting rid of a framing story told from the perspective of two grandchildren from these men, and altering enough plot points to streamline everything), it did maintain the journal aspect. These are men studying each other leaning about their own histories. To do it in any way other than their own words wouldn't cement their obsession. We have to feel as in the clutches of their stories as they were, so maintaining this perspective is important and then Nolan brother clearly understood this.
But then, everything in the film is misdirection. Everything is elaborated upon in such a way to keep the viewer from knowing what's truly going on despite seeing it all on screen. The magician asking where the audience is looking knows that he can point at one thing and we'll be focused on something else. The film, time and again, gives us clues to both these men and what's really going on with them (and between them), but we don't see it. The clues are there but on first viewing there's no way for you to know the whole true plot.
That's part of the brilliance of the film, though: you have to watch it again to get it all. The first time through blows your mind with the twists and turns. The repeat viewings, though, lets you truly appreciate all the clues that you didn't see the first time. A line here that colors a character in a way you didn't realize. A comment about a trick that tells you more than any other scene of the film. You only get that when you see it again, but that makes the further viewings all the more rewarding. The knowledge is there if only you understood it.
Of course, Nolan very well knew how to play multiple timelines together into a cohesive whole. Batman Begins opened with a story told in medias res, seeing Bruce Wayne (also Bale, as a matter of fact) in prison in Asia before going back to see how he got there, explaining his whole back story. And there's Memento, a film told completely in the wrong order, another way of playing misdirection without you ever knowing it. What the The Prestige does is take these skills Nolan had already hones and works it all into something even stronger, a fantastically twisty story that keeps you invested the whole time.
Nolan has made a lot of films that are pretty solid, and as his fame has grown he's been given more and more assets to play with to craft his visions. And yet, it's The Prestige, made for a relatively modest $40 Mil, that really shows Nolan's best skills as a director and storyteller. It's here, I think, that Nolan trying found his masterpiece. This film about two rivals and their twisting obsession shows Nolan's true gifts, creating a film that is infinitely watchable time and again.