Along with Aronofsky, Raimi and Singer, Christopher Nolan is one of the very few directors who I can really rely upon. A film with one of those names attached is, to me, a guarantee that I’ll be enjoying myself.
In Nolan’s case, there’s been Following, Memento, Insomnia and Batman Begins — as CVs go, that’s a pretty solid line-up. Now we have The Prestige, an adaptation of an excellent Christopher Priest novel of the same name that tells the story of two competing, turn-of-the-century stage magicians. Are you watching closely?
Much like Memento and Following, the story relies heavily upon twists, turns and secrets, so I’ll do my best not to spoil things here. The two magicians are Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman), both mentored to begin with by an elderly ingenieur — a designer of magical tricks — named Cutter (Michael Caine). Borden is a rough showman with little in the way of theatrical skill and visible working-class roots, whereas Angier is a smooth-talking, cultured performer who lacks the magical skill of his counterpart.
After they share the stage during the early stages of their careers and a trick goes tragically wrong, the two magicians begin to attempt to ruin each other by interfering with live tricks. The rivalry steps up when Borden creates a trick — The Transported Man — that Angier cannot reproduce to his own satisfaction. His obsession with besting Borden’s trick leads him to America, to Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) who constructs a machine for Angier that could be the key to conquering Borden once and for all.
Ok, how did I do? I don’t think I gave anything away there that you wouldn’t have seen in the film’s trailer. I had actually read the Priest novel twice before seeing the film so I knew how it was all going to play out and why — I don’t think this caused me to enjoy the film any less, particularly as the story isn’t entirely the same as the book’s. In fact, it’s one of the best adaptations of any book I’ve ever seen; faithful without being slavish, dissimilar without being disrespectful, it’s a testament to Nolan’s skill that it managed to surprise me even though I knew what was happening.
Where are the wires?
Casting is excellent — par for the course in a Nolan film. Bale and Caine are as brilliant here as they always are but Jackman provides a pleasant surprise; the part he plays is, for reasons I shan’t reveal here, a complex one, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play anything better. Piper Perabo and Andy Serkis play small but perfectly-formed roles, David Bowie’s low-key appearance doesn’t seem unusual and
there’s even an apparently-uncredited appearance by Guy Siner, who many of you will still know as the camp Nazi from ‘Allo ‘Allo!’. It’s inspired.
Then there’s the increasingly-ubiquitous Scarlett Johansson. You could be forgiven for thinking that as Olivia Wenscombe — initially partnered with Angier — she played a large role in The Prestige, particularly given her prominence on posters and other promotional material. In fact, her role is far less important, and although she comes between the duelling magicians in a number of ways, she’s incidental rather than causal — it’s clear that the rivalry between the two men and Angier’s obsession would have occurred with or without her.
Her small amount of screen time is for the best as well, as Johansson doesn’t really bring anything special to the role, beyond her — admittedly extraordinary — ability to look fantastic in a corset. In fact, given her lackluster appearance here and in, say, The Black Dahlia and Girl with a Pearl Earring, I’m beginning to suspect that she’s just not the woman for me after all.
Instead, my attention is turned towards relative newcomer Rebecca Hall who plays Sarah, wife to Borden, driven slowly to despair by the inexplicable behaviour of her husband. Hall is superb; having worked primarily in the theatre before now (aside from a couple of TV appearances) she comprehensively outclasses the more famous actresses on every level, and I look forward to seeing her in other films, including University Challenge romantic comedy Starter for Ten and, er, Untitled Stephen Poliakoff Project.
I haven’t even begun to talk about the direction; the story is told in a typically-Nolan fashion, jumping from the end to the beginning and back again instead of a straightforward beginning-middle-end structure, which only helps to prolong the mystery. Everything is slightly more intense than usual; the thundering electrical peals of the Tesla machines in particular can be felt through the floor.
The Prestige is, much like Memento and The Following, a film that will probably benefit a great deal from a postmortem discussion and a few re-watches, but that’s no bad thing. So if I haven’t been clear enough by this point, allow me to summarise; go and see this film. You won’t regret it.