The Prestige (2006) – Does Chris Nolan have the boring gene?

Everyone knows someone boring; a person whose tediousness is so profound that it’s hard to pay attention to them, even if what they are actually telling you is really interesting. Having watched Inception again recently in close proximity to The Prestige, I began to wonder if perhaps director & writer Christopher Nolan is  one of these inherently boring people, the kind of guy who can make the funniest joke or intriguing anecdote a drag just by the drabness built into his DNA.

I want to be quite clear that I am not saying that Christopher Nolan’s films are boring – well, not every part of all of them, anyway – indeed, he must be commended for bucking the trend of the big, dumb, hollow blockbuster over the last decade and actually giving audiences something to chew on, while also making a shitload of money at the box office.

It’s just – his films lack something, a certain stardust, that would make them true classics. He can do big, portentous build up, but the pay off is usually quite unfulfilling. Batman Begins was fantastic, up until the monotonous climax; Inception‘s last half is basically an action sequence within an action sequence within an action sequence, but is so dragged out that all I could do was sit, mildly engaged, appreciating how well the whole thing was crafted, but felt nothing at a gut level.

So, a director who is big on build up but can’t direct an action sequence – quite a shortfall when you’re directing action blockbusters.

The Prestige 1

Listen boys, I’ve just had a great idea…

Nolan’s managed to attract big stars from almost the beginning, and always elicits good, solid performances from them – apart from Heath Ledger, of course, whose performance was so magnetic it almost disguised the fact that large portions of The Dark Knight were actually quite tedious. He writes big heavy dialogue which then gets lost in the void of his moody visuals, and gets his actors to deliver the lines as if going through an existential crisis.

Listening to some of the interminable dialogue in The Prestige, I was reminded of an insult from a Woody Allen short story about two warring chess players:

Well-intentioned, concise, containing all the elements that appear to make up what passes among certain reference groups as a communicative effect, yet tinged throughout by what Jean-Paul Sartre is so fond of referring to as “nothingness.”

In short, there’s usually two types of dialogue in a Nolan film – exposition, and what passes as characterization. To get the payoff from a Nolan film, you only really need to listen to the exposition – indeed, Inception is so dependent on expositionary dialogue it would be impossible to get what’s happening without it.

So, The Prestige

Set in Victorian England, The Prestige tells the tale of two magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). They start out working together, but tragic circumstances send the pair of illusionists into an obsessive, dangerous battle of one-upmanship, with eventually fatal consequences.

Borden is the superior magician, although lacks showmanship; Angier knows how to work the crowd, but lacks Borden’s natural gift for the art. Angier becomes obsessed with learning Borden’s method for a trick called “The Transported Man”, which takes him to the States and a strange interview with Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), the mysterious inventor who may be able to build him a machine that will trump Borden’s trick.

The_Prestige 2

Michael Caine has a good role as John Cutter, Angier’s friend, mentor and stage engineer, and gives the film most of it’s heart. Scarlett Johansson also crops up as Olivia, Angier’s assistant who becomes dangerously involved with both men’s schemes.

Once again, Nolan has an interesting idea for The Prestige, and the story moves along pretty quickly for a two hour plus film; Nolan, as always, is completely assured directing his own material, and for at least the first hour the escalating battle of magicians is intriguing. As with almost all his other films, The Prestige buckles under the weight of it’s own seriousness in the second half, as it labours through it’s extended running time towards the inevitable twist(s).

Perhaps Nolan could use some more judicious editing to lighten up his films. Before writing this article, I took a look at the running times – I was surprised to see only Insomnia clocked in at under two hours; I thought Memento was shorter, as it flies along with a seat-of-it’s-pants energy, and never fails to explore the comic possibilities of the tale, even though its structure bears no scrutiny at all.

Performances, as usual for Nolan’s films, are good, but lack sparkle – Michael Caine always sparkles, so Nolan can’t have the credit for that. Bale is earnest and engaging, once he’s mastered an unconvincing working class accent. I was beginning to think that Nolan’s boringness was contagious, and had spread to Christian Bale, who I thought was a pretty entertaining actor before he got involved with Nolan.

Jackman is OK as the stiff, bitter Angier, but his portrayal makes it all too easy to side with Bale’s character, and the film drags whenever his foppish Angier has to do some emoting, voice-overing, or anguishing looking out of the window-ing.

Then, the twist. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing there is a twist at the end of The Prestige – that’s obvious from the mysterious opening shot of a bunch of top hats abandoned in the snow.

There are actually two twists – one which most viewers will figure out as soon as the nature of Tesla’s machine is revealed, and a second which is delivered with such a heavy hand that you wonder – did there need to be a twist? Couldn’t Nolan just have gone with a satisfactory conclusion that simply made sense, rather than shoehorning in such a contrived rug pull in the last few moments?

The Prestige is a diverting enough couple of hours of entertainment, saturated with Nolan’s usual gloomy-glossy visuals, committed performances and a few moments of genuine surprise. The final part of the trick, however – The Prestige of the title – is more likely to provoke shrugs than rapturous applause.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 12/11/2011, in cinema, Film, Movies, Reviews, Thriller, Wordpress and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I understand what you are saying about Nolan’s way of directing, but thought The Prestige was an amazing movie and I didn’t have the problems with it you describe. As for him not being able to direct action sequences I didn’t feel that is the case. Sure the action scene in the snow in Inception was a bit hard to follow, but I didn’t have that issue in the Batman movies. It was clear what was happening and as long as that’s the case I don’t have an issue with it. I guess you could say Nolan has his own style which of course you can always have critisize as any other movie director.

    • Thanks for the feedback – for some reason, your comment didn’t flag up, so I wasn’t ignoring you. It’s a matter of opinion of course, and I’m glad you shared yours with me – I had a feeling my views on Nolan’s movies might provoke a reaction! Cheers, Lee

      • That’s alright, wasn’t thinking you were ignoring. There are some days I don’t get around to responding to comments on my blogs either, so no worries! 🙂

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