Wednesday 20 January 2010

The Prestige

At the end of the 19th Century, two stage magicians working in London become bitter rivals: Robert Angier (played by Hugh Jackman), performing under the name 'The Great Danton', and Alfred Borden (played by Christian Bale), known as 'The Professor'. They each seek to upstage the other, and when Borden develops a seemingly impossible trick that has him apparently teleporting across the stage in a second, Angier becomes obsessed with finding out how he did it, an obsession that leads him to Colorado and a meeting with a man named Nikola Tesla...

The Prestige, released in 2006, is an adaptation of the excellent Christopher Priest novel of the same name, directed by Christopher Nolan of Memento and Batman Begins fame (his subsequent project to this movie would be The Dark Knight) and sharing several cast and crew with the comic book movies, including Christian Bale and Michael Caine. The Prestige is a superb film which may actually be the finest translation of a work of literature to the screen that I've ever seen. The film is incredibly faithful to the themes and spirit of the novel, but not slavishly so. Ideas from the book that would not work well on-screen have been jettisoned, whilst the novel's modern-day framing device has been removed and replaced with a new one that focuses the story much more closely on the rivalry between Borden and Angier. At the same time, the novel's conceit of taking place entirely through the pages of the two men's diaries is actually translated successfully to the screen, and the changes made to the central twist of the novel actually make the idea even more disturbing and horrific than in the novel. As with the novel, upon finishing the film the viewer may be tempted to immediately watch it again in full knowledge of the secrets revealed at the end, whereupon it turns into a different movie.

The film's success is built around its two protagonists. Bale and Jackman turn in supremely accomplished performances (the latter possibly in a career-best performance), each having to play a complex, driven character each of whom is carrying weighty secrets and mysteries. Their escalating rivalry is particularly well-handled. Some may feel that the two characters are too obsessed with their rivalry and we don't see many other facets of their personalities, but given that the entire movie is driven by their rivalry, this is understandable. The supporting cast is also excellent, particularly Michael Caine as Angier's assistant, Cutter, Scarlett Johansson as Olivia and the curiously effective partnership of David Bowie (yes, that David Bowie) as Tesla and Andy Serkis as his helper, Alley. In fact, it feels like there's a whole other movie Nolan could go and make about Nikola Tesla that would be as fascinating to watch.

Nolan's direction, having to handle a complex, non-linear narrative and not lose the audience in confusion, is very good. At one point Olivia tells us that once you know the secret of the trick, it becomes rather obvious, and the film is like that. Rewatching the movie, it's almost incredible that you missed all the (in retrospect, obvious) clues pointing to what the truth of the story is. This is where the real success of the movie lies. Most of Priest's novels have a moment which is known as the 'Priest Effect', where the reader feels a trapdoor has opened beneath their feet and they realise everything they thought they knew was not only wrong, but perhaps never existed in the first place. The idea that this could be translated to cinema seems unthinkable, but Nolan delivers it here with considerable success. This is a movie where the rules are fluid and shift, but once you know what is going on, it all makes sense.

The Prestige (*****) is a most accomplished film, well-paced and dramatic, with a tremendous sense of mystery. It is a puzzle box of a story where all the pieces fit together satisfyingly at the end, and rewards repeated viewing. It is available on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).


Jebus said...

It's a really fantastic film though unfortunately I did pick the twist quite early which maybe ruined some of the wow factor for me. I know this sounds douchebaggish but I honestly couldn't understand how people didn't pick it straight away since... well it was just obvious. I knew nothing about the novel or the movie before going in to it. (I realise all that sounds like I'm a "oh I totally knew that" tosser but there's really no other way to say it is there? Apart from "it's not my fault I'm awesome" :) )

Anyway, it was still a great ride.

Tree Frog said...

The Prestige is an enormously better film than its contemporary, The Illusionist. Where the latter is basically an excuse for Norton and Giamatti to chew up scenery, the former actually keeps to the spooky story and themes.

Jebus, reading your comment has annoyed me because you appear self-conscious enough to know better. Quit that.

Bryce L. said...

Hahaha. I understand you're point and I like how you put it although I didn't get the "obvious" twist right away, but you are awesome. :)

I love the Prestige, probably because I will automatically love anything with Christian Bale (Equilibrium anyone?) and then add Nolan and you've got whatever's better than perfection.


Magemanda said...

I adored this film - and, luckily, I am one of those people who ends up wide-eyed at every twist. I just never see it coming unless it is completely bludgeon-your-head obvious.

I haven't yet read the book, and I'm looking forward to that.

Erin O'Riordan said...

Goddess knows I love me some Christian Bale, so I was destined to love this movie, but I loved Chris Priest's novel just as much. I would highly recommend reading the novel even if you've already seen the film. There's so much more to this eerie story than the Borden twist.

red snow said...

I loved the twist and while i worked some of the smaller ones out, i never got the main one and was overcome with, "well, duh". I have yet to wathc it again to see how it fits together knowing the twist but if it's anything like memento it will probably stand up.
I really liked the scenes with Bale and his wife and the "Do you love me?" motif they kept repeating.

I look forward to seeing whether Nolan can match the next decade as he was defintiely one of the best film-makers of the noughties.

Anonymous said...

I would love to see a movie about the life of Nikola Tesla. One book in particular; Wizard: the Life and Times of Nikola Tesla, I think could make a wonderful screenplay. Everyone should know more about the man.

Anonymous said...

It did occur to me pretty early to go 'What would happen if I followed the story as if X?'.... spent most of the rest of it giving myself reasons why it obviously couldn't be true, though :)

Jebus said...

Red Snow - it's been a while since I saw the film but I think (from vague memory) it was the "Do you love me?" part that gave it away - cleverly yes, but still too obvious for these discerning eyes.

It's a problem, and I'm drinking copious amounts of alcohol on a regular basis in an attempt to remedy the situation so I sit through films like this as clueless as the rest of you.


Brett said...

I loved this film, although to be honest, I probably won't see it a second time. The twist at the end regarding Christian Bale's guy threw me for a loop.