The Red Right Hand

A Friendship, That Became A Rivalry... A Rivalry, That Became A Battle

Christopher Nolan
Hugh Jackman
Christian Bale
Michael Caine
Scarlett Johansson

Since the first appearance of teaser trailers, I desperately wanted to see The Prestige; to date, I have been incredibly impressed with everything Christopher Nolan has offered audiences, not to mention the assorted efforts of the cast gathered. As I left the screening, I wasn't entirely sure if I liked the film or not. Part of me thought it was an over-stylised, slow, self-important load of drivel, while another part of me was completely taken aback, desperate to see more. I suppose, in one way or another, that's simply because it mirrors my take on magic tricks. Based on Christopher Priest's novel (of the same name), the Nolan brothers have collaborated to produce a rather lengthy and heavily unmoral screenplay. As this is the first time they’ve worked together since Memento (one of my personal favourites), everyone seems to be expecting sheer genius. Our tale opens to three various flashback periods; the first focuses on magician, Alfred Borden [Bale], who is being tried for the death of former partner, turned rival, Robert Angier [Jackman]. Sitting in his jail cell, Borden is given a book, Angier's diary. The second flashback sends us back a further year or two, as Angier arrives in Colorado and begins to scribble his obsessive notes. Having procured Borden’s cryptic notebook, he is trying to retrace his steps, in order to find the secrets to one of his greatest illusions; The Transported Man. This has led him to Colorado Springs, a hive of electrical activity, where eccentric scientist, Nikola Tesla has been conducting various experiments for about a year. The final flashback sequence is set another year or two into the past, when Borden and Angier were merely assistants in another magician's show. The stage is set for a death-defying trick, in which the magician's assistant is tied with ropes and sealed in a locked glass box, filled with water, then, miraculously escapes. One night the assistant (and Angier's wife) finds she can't get out of the knot tied by Borden and drowns - so begins the hatred between Borden & Angier. What starts out as a professional rivalry soon swings into a darker tale of who can reap the most vengeance upon the other. Shows are infiltrated, secrets stolen and blood spilled.

First of all, the good points. The visual styling is stunning, offering a beautiful contrast from a living and breathing Edwardian London to a newly-born Colorado mountain town. The plot is intricate and from the very get-go sets out to fool you; leading your vision in one direction, to distract you from the obvious conclusion in the other. The two leads battle off one another with a splendid hypnotic effect. Hugh Jackman plays the slightly lofty American, Angier, who is constantly trying to become bigger and better than his rival - Bale's Borden is clearly lower class, cheeky but wickedly clever and saving his greatest trick for the final act. Some of the supporting roles are wonderfully captivating and add an extra layer to the whole effect. Travelling through each flashback is the ingeneur played by Michael Caine and interacting with our leads separately is Nikola Tesla, himself, played with a preternatural excellence by David Bowie; with the added bonus of his Yank-tongued assistant, Alley [Andy Serkis]. The story itself is so twisted and convoluted that as everything comes to fruition in the final moments you can't help but sit back in your chair, eyes widened, mind reeling and think back on the entire storyline and mutter to yourself, "I've got to see that again."

Unfortunately, there are some rather large downers that need to be pointed out. These aren't just your passing trifles, they're full-on movie killers; these are the elements that will cut the audience in two, between those that loved it and those that hated every minute – as is what's happening with critics, across the board. Firstly, Ms. Johansson; she really needs to find herself a way out of this little typecast niche she's fallen into. When she first came to the screen in Ghost World, Eight Legged Freaks and Lost In Translation nobody really knew who she was, nor really cared. Her raspy voice complimented her charming (yet simplistic) beauty, she was simply a breath of fresh air from all the dolled-up hacks that we had to wade through. Then she stumbled through Girl With A Pearl Earring, was miscast as an action heroine in The Island (bloody Michael Bay) and since Match Point has the simple task of standing around pouting, then screaming at the man she likes, before lying around semi-naked and possibly dying or walking out. I'm not saying she's a poor actress, I'm simply trying to point out that the image she presents clouds the rolls she accepts. In this picture she spends the majority of her time onstage in lacy corsets or walking round-and-about town in extravagant frilly, black and red numbers that simply seem out of place for the time in which the film was set. The flashbacks, as wondrous as they are can get incredibly nauseating; all the back-stabbing, the lying, the treachery takes a toll and after over an hour of deceptive journals, you start to wonder if any of it was true or simply a deliberate mislead.

The film starts and ends on a wooded clearing, filled with top hats. Our initial reaction is to expect a rabbit to crawl out from one, revealing the trick to be nothing more than an illusion. The truth, as Nolan illustrates, is far more disturbing; a very human battle for identity and fame; the power love can hold over man and the corruption that can stem from it; and a Faustian trade that mankind made as we entered an age of science and industry, sacrificing religion, magic and all things mystical, leaving us with the poignant question, "When it goes wrong, which is more terrifying, Science or Magic?" On the whole, I really enjoyed this piece and although it has its clearly ridiculous moments it doesn't matter because, not dissimilar to the common magic trick, you don't want to be given simple answers, you want to be lead along and to feel fooled or baffled at the end; something that will make you scratch your head, trying to figure out what it all means – a point made by Borden which is also, essentially, his main aspiration in the conjuring world.

Release Date:
10th November 2006

The Scene To Look Out For:
I want to say the final scene, where everything is revealed and you sit back in shock and awe (the very nature of the 'prestige' itself) but that would be quite tacky. As Borden gets his first gig in a small dingy shack, he performs the only trick that his growingly impatient audience want to see; the bullet trick. Having explained to his wife - in a previous scene - how it works, Borden asks a volunteer to step forward. A disguised Angier takes the gun from his hand, discreetly slips a real bullet inside and takes careful aim. Having realised that it's the magician's rival, Borden's faithful stage hand springs into action, to divert the pistol. Not acting quickly enough, Angier manages to squeeze the trigger, sending the tiny lead sphere through Borden's left hand. It's a simple scene but conveys just how far these men went to bring the other down, to take vengeance for what was taken from them.

Notable Characters:
I really enjoyed the majority of the lead elements but as a Bowie fan, I was wriggling in my seat as the set-mouthed Bowie portrayed a very real Tesla. For those that don't know, Tesla used to work for Edison until a matter of $50,000 owed to Tesla was laughed off as Edison is reputed to have said, "Tesla, you don't understand our American humour." Although Tesla achieved an astonishing amount with his AC polyphase designs, he was never as revered as Edison, as his methods were seen as unorthodox and his theories radical. The rivalry here beautifully mimics that of Borden and Angier, as Bowie quietly plays with elements that are quite improbable but not necessarily impossible, scientifically speaking.

Highlighted Quote:
"No one cares about the man in the box, the one under the stage... the man who disappears"

In A Few Words:
"A deep and perplexing plot holds throughout this optically beautiful illusion; only minor quibbles knock it down"

Total Score:

Matthew Stogdon