Friday, March 16, 2012

The Prestige - Complexity and Symmetry

This post contains huge plot spoilers for The Prestige.

Last night I inexplicably had the urge to watch Christopher Nolan's follow up to Batman Begins, 2006s The Prestige. I had enjoyed the film immensely upon release but had not had a chance to revisit it since. I fired it up on my laptop and sat back in my hotel room to see if it was still as captivating as it was six years ago.

There were two things in particular that really stood out to me on this viewing. The first was how Nolan has the uncanny ability to tell an extremely complex tale in a way that never seems complex. If you actually break down the plot of The Prestige it is astounding how many layers deep it goes (a prelude to Inception no doubt). The film opens with the murder trial of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) who has been accused of killing fellow magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). While behind bars Borden is given the journal of Angier which he proceeds to read, it's content being played out on screen via flashback. In the journal Angier writes about having acquired Borden's journal which he is deciphering, and again we see the contents of that journal played out too. Essentially the film begins at the end and then we are unraveling the mystery via a flashback within a flashback. Then on top of this already mind-melting structure, Nolan also freely jumps around in time independently of the journal flashbacks (such as the opening shot of the top hats etc.). Phew. As you can see, saying that The Prestige has a complex structure is an understatement. Hell, I'm struggling to even describe the temporal nature of the plot in this post!

But this is where Nolan's genius lies. The Prestige is never hard to follow. Miraculously Nolan is able to weave a coherent and gripping tale all the while never alienating his audience. It would have been incredibly easy for this film to be an indecipherable mess. But somehow Nolan dodges that bullet and crafts a film the feels as though it is totally in control of it's structure. Sure, you need to pay attention. But it never makes the audience feel stupid or lost. This is an amazing feat, and one that should not be overlooked.

The other aspect of The Prestige that really struck me was the thematic symmetry that permeates throughout the film. Firstly, and most obviously, the film is itself is about doubles, Borden's twin brother and Angier's eventual clone. The majority of the plot revolves around Angeir's obsession with discovering the the secret behind the "Transported Man" illusion, one in which identical cupboards or doors are positioned at each end of the stage. There is also symmetry to be found in the lives of the characters. Angier's wife drowns then he himself drowns each night at the climax of his final performance. Borden's wife hangs herself then Borden himself is hanged. The whole diary, within a diary conceit has a beautiful symmetry too.

There is also symmetry in the construction of the film itself. The opening sequence features a scene in which Cutter (Michael Caine) performs a magic trick for a small girl. The illusion consists of a bird and a cage disappearing then the bird reappearing as if my magic. However what is actually occurring is that Cutter crushes both the bird and the cage (killing the bird) then presenting a new bird which the girl assumes is actually the old one. This trick perfectly mirrors the final reveal of the film in which we discover that Angier has essentially been performing the exact same trick using himself and a clone each night.

It is this structural mirroring and thematic symmetry that helps Nolan create a film that, despite its incredibly complex nature, is easy to follow and dramatically powerful. The Prestige is a remarkable film from a remarkable director. Nolan is often showered in praise for his Batman films, however looking beyond those (admittedly groundbreaking) films, I think it is worth taking note that there isn't another filmmaker working within Hollywood that consistently produces such complex and interesting work. I for one am looking forward to discovering what he has planned for us once his Batman trilogy is complete.

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