The Prestige (2006)
Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is that rare film that the more you watch it, the more you can’t stop yourself from being amazed by it. It’s endlessly fascinating, wonderfully complex, subtle and suspenseful. I’ll grant that the plot is definitely convoluted and may leave a handful of spectators scratching their heads, but in a sense it’s like what Cutter (Michael Caine) says at the very end: the audience knows, but doesn’t really want to work it out. That’s the key to the fascination of The Prestige, the awe and wonder is not on the secret itself but on how it tricks you.
Christopher Priest’s homonymous 1995 novel was almost tailor-made for Christopher Nolan and his co-screenwriter and brother Jonathan. The two had worked together in 2000’s hit film Memento which touched on many Priestean concepts regarding memories and their relation to truth and told in a style that would’ve made Priest proud too. In an interview he said yes to the Nolan’s adaptation after seeing Memento. It indeed was promising, as Nolan showed a great ease to astound us by twisting our heads at half-truths told in a retrospective fashion. The prospect of a movie that it’s told backwards is daunting, but Memento is, like the non-linear The Prestige, surprisingly clear. But most of all, both films’ narratives give a sense that it was impossible to tell the story in any other way, and that’s really what it counts when it comes to stylistics.
There are many layers of narrative in The Prestige. It begins with Cutter telling the audience the three parts of a magic trick: The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige (very convincing, but Priest made this up). Then we have Borden (Christian Bale) reading Angier’s (Hugh Jackman) diary about reading Border’s diary. It is fragmented and non-linear, time frames and perspectives keep changing every so often but Nolan has a way of making his film seem completely free-form as if unbounded by time and conventional narrative linearity but at the same time retaining an almost clockwork and precise set of events that you see unfolding before your eyes. That is his real trick, and it marks his most assured and impressive directorial work to date. Each scene flows to the next, even when it’s jumping years ahead and showing things we don’t understand at first with great dexterity. The film is very fast but never rushed, and the sophisticated script, sumptuous visuals and remarkable performances are arresting.
Priest has said that the metaphors in his novel are mainly literary, and that the Nolans have managed to translate them into visual ones. He’s right: the changes from the novel simplify much of the creepy and outlandish (but wonderful) elements of the novel in favor of more immediate and equally powerful ones. The way Tesla’s machine works significantly departs from the novel, but the Nolan’s variation fits perfectly with the rest of the material and is very effective in underlining Angier’s moral bankruptcy in his attempt to better Borden. The main portion of Priest’s book comprises of Angier and Borden’s diaries, and much of the narrative’s subtleties are conveyed by different perspectives of a same event; and like in the novel when you never knew (or after a while you started to) which one of the Borden twins was writing the diary, Bale conveys the same confusion by an incredible nuanced performance.
The only drawbacks are Scarlett Johansson’s weak performance as Olivia and Angier’s oversentimental speech at the end, which tries to give the film a more palatable moral dimension and unecessarily explains much of what’s come before. Even after this patronizing little scene, people still come out of the theater unsure of key plot points. At least Nolan doesn’t make everything explicit in this scene, and leaves the last shot ambiguous — but if you’ve been paying attention, there’s no doubt about it.
The second viewing of The Prestige is just as engrossing as the first. Watching the pieces of the puzzle fit together and being mad at yourself for not daring to believe it the first time are just as strong as trying to figure out the secrets. Like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” in which the letter in case could not be found because it was hidden in plain sight, the last place anyone would look, everything is right there in front of you but you don’t really want to see it. I’m not one that cares much for gimmicky films or novels, but Nolan — and Priest before him — has crafted a masterpiece which goes far beyond the artifice by its sheer inventiveness and power of narrative. It does help that David Bowie plays Nikola Tesla, his most delightful film appearance ever.
Things to read:
- The Prestige, by Christopher Priest
- The Prestige – the screenplay, by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan
- Paul Kincaid‘s review of The Prestige (film and screenplay) at Strange Horizons.