It’s a relief that unlike Bryan Singer, Christopher Nolan was able to shoot a pet project between mammoth superhero instalments. It’s a shame to me that as good as Singer’s comic-book adaptations have been, he’s largely lost touch with his roots in smaller-scale drama, and I was concerned that Nolan may become similarly lost, despite my great love for Batman Begins. Thankfully we have The Prestige, a film version of Christopher Priest’s Victorian novel that he’s been developing for years, and it occupies an intriguing middle ground between the intelligent commercialism of Begins and the indie grit of Memento.
Aspiring 19th century London stage magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are cautious friends with differing goals. Angier wants to be a great showman, but Borden, less the performer and more the craftsman, wants to achieve sleights-of-hand never seen by audiences, to push the limits of stage magic. When an accident precipitated by Borden kills Angier’s wife, they become professional and personal rivals, which is only exacerbated by Borden’s immense success with the inexplicable trick “The Transported Man”, whose secret Angier becomes obsessed with discovering.
The script, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, is a tremendous example of transposing a text into a new medium (nice coincidence, that ;D), creating a purposeful new vision of existing material. Priest’s novel is largely told through the two protagonists’ diaries, the lengthy extracts of which effectively build up our resentment against the other character before their own entry swings the pendulum back. Nolan achieves a similar sense of equilibrium via disorientation using techniques best suited to cinema, playing again with linearity as he did in Memento but instead mixing up the chronology rather than outright reversing it. He does so in order to parallel the three acts of the film with those of a magic trick, as outlined in voiceover by Michael Caine’s trick designer Cutter at the start, so that the answers to this quite beguiling mystery are provided in the final third even though they are strewn throughout Borden and Angier’s respective journeys. The Prestige is further proof that Nolan has some of the best instincts in the business, staying faithful to a novel while still delivering a film with his own stamp on it.
This is a less psychologically probing film than Memento and Insomnia, and some have dismissed it as a well-done genre indulgence.I’ll leave aside my own criticisms of those who criticise genre and just say that the film works spectacularly on both levels. This is an entertainment that never panders, enrapturing us with its enjoyable headspinners while never remaining emotionally distant. While the film lacks the intimacy of the aforementioned two Nolan efforts, its character work is clearly sufficient because we continually sympathise with two almost psychotically obsessed men. The dialogue is occasionally clunky and expository, but the performances make up for it. Jackman is both charismatic and unnervingly determined as Angier and funny as his foppish hired double, but I expect that The Fountain will be the film that reveals his true powers to us.
Bale is characteristically excellent, selling Borden’s awkwardness and selfishness while still arousing our support, particularly through his love for his daughter. His odd, tragic relationship with his wife is a high point, even if its resolution doesn’t feel earned. Caine is great as always, and he and Bale manage to be sufficiently different from their recent pairing as Bruce Wayne and Alfred that we’re never reminded of it. Scarlett Johansson is adequate in a fairly thankless role that I’m surprised she took; perhaps working with Nolan was the attraction. And David Bowie makes a very welcome return to movies with an enigmatic and otherworldly performance that contributes to the film’s inexorable sense that what we are witnessing is somehow against nature, although we will not discover how until the conclusion.
What proportion of the audience guesses the twist in advance will be fun to discover. Having read the book, it was sadly spoiled for me, but this didn’t detract from the film. In fact, a second viewing will still be very rewarding just to observe how Nolan built it into the film, especially since I forgot the second twist, the catalyst for the film’s haunting final image. Don’t let anyone ruin this movie for you, as its glorious construction needs to be admired with unspoiled eyes. However, it’s not just a puzzle to solve. The Prestige is also an emotionally rousing tale, delving into the nature of obsession and what gives a life purpose. Once again, I’m thankful for filmmakers like Nolan, who work within the system to create meaningful work to savour.