The Prestige (the movie)

published: Mon, 13-Nov-2006   |   updated: Mon, 13-Nov-2006
The Prestige poster

As I promised myself a while back, I went to see the movie version of The Prestige by Christopher Priest today. The flight back from Barcelona yesterday (I was there with Developer Express for Tech·Ed Europe) was very long — three legs and 22 hours of travel — so I took the day off today to relax and catch up.

The movie is based loosely on the novel, which is one of my favorite Priests, so I shall have to tread carefully and view the movie on its own rights as its own entity. Luckily, since the director, Christopher Nolan, is one of my favorite directors at the moment, this is easier than it sounds.

The film starts off with a long pan of a wooded area with lots of top hats strewn around the ground, and a voice saying, carefully, measuredly, "Are you watching closely?" The advice bears taking to heart, but it's not only watching that will bear fruit, it's also listening carefully to what the characters are saying. Sometimes what they say has two meanings and we automatically understand the principal sense, but not necessarily the subtle, yet intended one.

Anyway, from that enigmatic initial pan, we're thrown into a court case: Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is accused of the murder of Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman), a fellow magician. As the movie makes clear, they were originally friends when they were budding magicians, but an accident — or was it? — drowns Angier's wife in a water tank in a botched magic trick. After that they become sworn enemies and try at every turn (and using every trick) first to outdo each other and second to destroy each other's reputation by deliberately ruining each other's stage performances.

The film is shot in a style that sometimes gets a little confusing: the action snaps back and forth through time, in a very fractured way. The two men also manage to get hold of each other's diaries, which produces yet more flashbacks. (I must admit the ending of the second diary caught me by surprise — I hadn't seen it coming.) The problem with the flashbacks in a way is that you have to be paying particular attention to understand how it all fits in together, and in what sequence the events occurred.

Sometimes, Nolan does a good job and catches the audience completely by surprise (like the diary ending I just mentioned), but sometimes the trick is lead-footed and obvious from the start. For example, in the book — sorry, I've just got to make the comparison — Priest goes to great lengths not to spell out the problem with the machine invented by Nicola Tesla (David Bowie). In fact, on rereading, it's a little convoluted, but that's all right since its part of Angier's diary and he's being deliberately obtuse. But in the movie, we're told the problem pretty well immediately (and again we see the top hats in the wood, together with a couple of cats).

And why the heck aren't the Colorado scenes even filmed in Colorado Springs? I'm not asking for complete verisimilitude, but the long shots aren't even of Pikes Peak, for heaven's sake. And as far as I know (and I was a student at King's College on the Strand, after all, so I should know something about it), the Aldwych in London is a semi- circle, but here it's suddenly straight as a die. (Also see here for more discussion about the Aldwych.)

The film throws us trick after trick and we marvel. The plot seems especially made for Christopher Nolan, since it's full of deception and lies and misdirection. Noting is as it seems. Finally though, we get to the denouement, which I won't say too much about for fear of spoiling it, where, together with its own box of tricks, everything is explained.

The acting is extremely good. Jackman and Bale (the latter seemed to be channelling Bob Hoskins; and so well, I want to see him in a remake of The Long Good Friday) do an excellent job of making the main protagonists believable and fascinating, as well as utterly repugnant. I found myself disliking each magician completely, and, unlike the book, I wasn't rooting for one over the other. Michael Caine plays Cutter, Angier's ingenieur and the character who seems to be on our (the audience's) side to the extent of narrating a little bit (he's the one who talks about the three parts to a trick: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige) and plays him in pretty standard late-Caine manner. Scarlett Johansson plays Olivia Wenscombe, the magician's assistant who falls for Angier and then Borden, but she doesn't come across as all that believable for me and was the black spot of the movie. Piper Perabo playing Julia Angier, the wife who dies early on, was excellent (and should have had a better part), and Rebecca Hall playing Sarah Borden was simply awesome.

After the movie finished and I was driving home, I reflected on the way it was structured and the ending in particular. Unlike in the book, the Tesla machine in the film was the biggest problem for me. Its flaw didn't have the flaw in the book, and so it required Angier to kill himself repeatedly. I just don't know whether or how he could even contemplate that, let alone do it time after time. Also, Borden's personal horror seemed to be skimmed over, to the point that he was almost grinning when he described his deception. The book makes particularly clear Borden's "schizophrenia" — his ruse is such that the other characters never know — but here it's more muddy and less satisfying and Sarah, his wife, does know his secret.

Nevertheless, despite its flaws, the movie is very good. The setting and feel for Victorian London and wild west Colorado is especially good. The splintered time-jumping becomes less confusing as the movie moves along, and adds to the air of mystery and magic. It's one of those movies you want to see again so that, knowing the plot, you can marvel at the Nolans' construction of the film and its sequence.