"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, October 23, 2006

Enchanting Within Limits—Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige"

The latest movie about magic and magicians, The Prestige, opened this past Friday to middling reviews but good box office, winning the weekend by an estimated $1.1 million over the number two attraction, Martin Scorcese's The Departed.

Actors Hugh Jackman (L), Christian Bale (C) and Michael Caine, stars of the new drama film 'The Prestige' about two rival magicians, pose at the film's premiere in Hollywood, California, October 17, 2006. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

The movie is worth seeing if you don't expect too much. The filmmakers have clearly tried very hard to make it both entertaining and meaningful, but The Prestige just barely manages to achieve either of those goals.

The plot is complex, the characters' motives are often fashionably murky, and the cinematography and visual effects are ambitious and largely diverting. The sets have the cluttered, dirty look that is now common to these period films, in a clear reaction against the tidy, stagy approach once common to Hollywood, the BBC, and PBS's Masterpiece Theater but now largely gone from all three (cf. the most recent theatrical film version of Pride and Prejudice and last year's PBS adaptation of Bleak House).

The main performers—Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Michael Caine—use every bit of their formidable charisma to keep the viewer interested, and Rebecca Hall also puts in an excellent performance. (Scarlett Johansen, on the other hand, brings nothing special but her looks.) The central premise—a war between two magicians to create the ultimate illusion—is a very promising idea.

Unfortunately, instead of having fun with this, the director and co-screenwriter, Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) takes it all way too seriously, working feverishly to explain the Meaning Behind It All while failing to creat a pair of central characters whom we could wish to be around for a couple of hours. Both Jackman's and Bale's characters are willful, absurdly ambitious, self-important, egotistical, and, well, rather silly. Given the characters' unpleasant personalities and the fact that neither of them is attempting to contributes anything of value to society, it really doesn't matter much which one of them wins. And that is the death knell for entertainment value in a film with a conflict between two people as its central premise.

But it's fun to watch nonetheless, as Nolan is very good at getting us from one plot point to the next, and the fractured, chronologically out of sequence narrative keeps us guessing not only what's going to happen next but what's happening now. Skilled movie watchers will be able to anticipate all the big surprises, but it's still fun to see somebody try to enchant us.

Although Nolan's weakness as a creator of characters (also a problem in his other films) ultimately limits the film, The Prestige does at least succeed in enchanting us a bit with a fun guessing game. But it could and should have been so much more.

From Karnick on Culture.

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