Tuesday, 14 November 2006

the prestige

Coming out of the Peckham Multiplex I call Mr Blue, filmmaker, and tell him I’ve just seen Nolan’s film. Why? he cries, the critics all said it was Rubbish!

I have thoroughly enjoyed the film, and all of a sudden I’m wondering if it wasn’t hokum after all. The wool has been pulled over my eyes, I have fallen for the oldest trick in the book, the flashing bulbs of Hollywood.

The revelation, the ‘prestige’ itself, is not exactly astonishing. I guessed it sometime after Michael Caine did, but got there nonetheless. Admittedly much of the acting seems as old as the sets are supposed to look, creaky, undercrafted. The pace is sometimes erratic as the narrative flies from trick to counter-trick, from Colorado to London. Ah, I think for a second, losing my nerve, rain falling on the Rye, maybe I’ve been suckered.

Nolan knows a thing or two about dazzling an audience. His first film, Following, is heart-free but cleverly constructed. His second, Momento, was breathtaking. Thereafter Insomnia was a pale imitation of the original and I missed Batman. The Prestige has him back where he belongs. Which is messing around with plots. Demonstrating his cleverness; keeping us guessing.

Messing about with plots. At one point Bale’s magician says to Jackman’s magician – you have to be prepared to get your hands dirty. Nolan seems to know that in order to create something that looks clean and calculated, you have to mess around. He’s willing to flip between past, present and future, between Colorado and London, timelines all of a muddle, pretty girls coming and going, David Bowie scattering some cheese on proceedings. Does a pile of tophats in a glade really mean something? When we see them a second time do they mean something else? Do they mean what we think they mean or do they mean nothing at all? Is magic all pretence? Is there such a thing as the truth?

In the end, all is bound to be revealed. The ‘prestige’ is the final revelation of the magic trick, when the disappeared reappears, the audience applaud. Nolan can never quite hope to match the effectiveness of a great magic trick on screen. Film is not quite magic, which thrives on an audience’s physical participation in the deceit to generate wonder. But he can emulate a magic trick, he can lead us through the pathways of a magician’s chicanery. To my mind it seemed appropriate that the ending failed to match the complexity of the plot. Even if the finale is anti-climactic, we’ve still been treated to a dazzling show. To be taken through the machinations of a plot is in some ways more entertaining than to be seduced by it. The very principle of The Prestige seems to be to reveal rather than deceive, in so far as the filmmaker can, meaning that disappointment is embedded in its enterprise.

All the same, I now wonder if the filmmaker realised this, or if he thinks he’s pulling one over on his audience. In which case the film fails miserably. But if he doesn’t it’s clearly a great success. It all depends where you’re looking. The very fact you can’t be quite sure implies the film’s doing something right. Or perhaps it really is a load of old hokum. Still raining in the Rye.

NB – The one character who has the ability to glean the truth which underpins the magician’s innate deceit is Bale’s wife, who can tell by the way he says he loves her whether he means it or not. Only later do we learn how right she truly was, but in another way the revelation matters not at all. Because in her actions and her words lurk the notion that there is a deeper truth that cannot dissemble no matter how hard it tries, a truth which is tied up with our understanding of love. Perhaps a braver film would have followed this further, for the wife, recognising there is little place for her understandings in a Hollywood blockbuster, hangs herself.

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