Okay, so my regular readers have probably noticed that things have slowed down a bit this month on Taking Up Room. Job stuff and the end-of-the-school-year rat race have gotten in the way, not to mention basically having no Internet for a week, but the current sluggishness is all about to change. For the next ten days, it’s going to get crazy. Hold on to your hats, guys.
Those who have been around Taking Up Room longer might remember my review of The Illusionist. Basically, my husband and I went to the movies expecting to see Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in a magician movie, only we didn’t. That came later, and the film was The Prestige. It might have had similar subject matter to The Illusionist, but the two movies couldn’t have been more different.
The movie opens with a view of top hats strewn about a snowy forest glade. Then we see stage manager and engineer, Cutter (Michael Caine) walking along rows of cages. He opens one of them and takes out a canary. In voiceover, he explains that every trick has three parts. The first part is the pledge. It’s the buildup. It’s when the magician presents himself and what he’s about to do to the audience. It’s where he plays on their disbelief. The second part is when the unbelivable seems to happen. The third part, the prestige, is the payoff. As Cutter says, it’s not enough to make something disappear, but it has to reappear for the audience to accept it.
We then see a courtroom, where Cutter is on the witness stand. A man named Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is on trial for murder of Cutter’s employer, Robert Angier, and the prosecutor wants him to reveal the solution to the illusion, “The Transported Man.” Cutter refuses, because the trick is highly valued in the magic world, and he’s not allowed to betray trade secrets.
Alfred is being pestered by solicitors who want to buy “The Transported Man” trick off of him, and Alfred won’t hear of it. As one of them reminds him, though, Alfred has a daughter who will need care if and when Alfred hangs.
Next Robert Algier (Hugh Jackman) is riding in a coach to Colorado Springs. He’s come to see Nikolai Tesla (David Bowie) about a machine he’s built for one of Robert’s colleagues. No dice, though. Tesla isn’t selling.
The narration then splits between Alfred and Robert, who take turns, sorta, telling us how they came to be rivals. They were both stooges for Martin the Marvelous, which means they pretend to be audience members when Robert’s wife, Julia (Piper Pirabo) calls for volunteers. It’s a successful show, but Alfred is bored. He thinks the act is cliched and needs some kick. The problem is that his ideas verge on suicidal, like the bullet catch trick.
Alfred and Robert’s breaking point happens when Robert suspects Alfred of deliberately putting the wrong kind of knot in Julia’s bonds during their escaping-from-a-water-tank stunt. Julia, of course, dies, and from that point on, Robert and Albert are rivals.
These two guys go head to head, and it’s like comparing Criss Angel to David Blaine. Robert is a true showman. He patters his way through illusions, sells the payoffs like a boss, and gets packed houses laughing and applauding. Alfred, meanwhile, performs each illusion strictly deadpan, glowering at ticketholders. He’d be boring if audiences weren’t waiting with bated breath to see what will happen next.
Naturally, Robert and Alfred disguise themselves and sneak into each other’s shows to try and guess each other’s secrets. They also tail each other on the street, which is how Robert finds out Alfred has met and married Sarah (Rebecca Hall) and has a daughter with her. For his own part, Robert takes on a voluptuous new assistant, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), who both draws the crowds and makes an excellent spy. She finagles her way into Alfred’s heart and steals his journal.
To his dismay, Robert finds the journal is written in code, as if Alfred knew he would steal it. However, his interest is piqued when he sees drawings for a trick called “The Transported Man.” As in, the illusionist would walk through one seemingly ordinary door and walk through another seemingly ordinary door on the other side of the stage.
Robert has to learn how Alfred accomplishes this feat, and then he has to one-up him. His quest takes him to Colorado Springs, where we found him at the beginning of the movie.
From here on, things get really confusing, and it’s hard to say anything else without either ruining all of it or making it harder to follow, if that makes any sense.
Well, there are a few things to say: When we see Robert and Alfred, are they really Robert and Alfred? Who has pure motives, and who’s out for himself? Cryptic, I know, but it’s the best I can do. Trust me, this is not the kind of movie that can be watched with one eye on the popcorn.
I have mixed feelings about The Prestige. It feels a little soupy, jumping from one point of view to another and back again. It feels like filmmaker Christopher Nolan is messing with his audience’s heads, which he is–the whole movie is a sleight-of-hand.
The problem is that there are too many gotchas and not enough of a prestige to make it very satisfying. And even when there seems to be a prestige, it’s not, really. The film is not an atypical story for director Christopher Nolan, whose movie, Interstellar, also played with time, only in that case it was all about tesseracts instead of sleight-of-hand. The reason that film seemed to work better, though, is that it still had a clear, albeit faint thread running through it that tied everything together. The Prestige just seems to flail.
The film does have its good points. The acting in The Prestige is terrific. Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, and Michael Caine are a dream team, and I hope they make more films together. It’s fun seeing David Bowie as Tesla, as the role’s inevitable quirk suits a guy like Bowie. It’s also fun hearing Michael Caine talk in his natural Cockney accent. The visuals in the film are stunning as well.
None of that, however, can save a movie that tries really, really hard to get viewers thinking outside of the box but ultimately falls flat. It’s a shame. If I had to pick between The Illusionist and The Prestige, I would pick the former. In my opinion, it’s a tighter story and much more entertaining, with a vastly superior payoff. I don’t know, I may have to revisit The Prestige again and see how well it wears.
Another Origins post is on the way. Thanks for reading, all…
The Prestige is available on Blu-ray from Amazon.