Celebrated Victorian stage magician Alfred Borden (Bale) stands accused of the murder of professional rival Rupert Angier (Jackman). The Prestige traces the course of their bitter feud, as their respective acts of sabotage become ever more deadly.
You always know where you are with Christopher Nolan, in that it’s often hard to know where you are. Or rather when. He’s a filmmaker who clearly believes that every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, only not necessarily in that order. (Unless the usual order isn’t what you’re expecting; after all, he was the first director to begin the Batman story at the beginning.) So it’s no surprise that the man who brought us a modern noir about a man with short-term memory loss through a brain-straining reverse-chronological structure should present a Victorian murder-mystery tale of such beautiful convolutions that the dizzying struggle to follow it provides half the entertainment.
For, despite the return of Batman Begins’ Christian Bale and Michael Caine, and the big-name face-off promise that Nolan used to sell Insomnia, the film The Prestige most closely resembles is Memento. Hardly a shock when you note that his adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel was penned with his sibling and Memento co-creator Jonathan, and that they optioned the book around the same time as Memento was released. But it is perhaps more of an eyebrow-raiser when you consider that The Prestige is situated in an entirely different genre. Or two.
Nolan’s already been vocal about how he didn’t want The Prestige to feel or look like a period movie, and it’s certainly steadfastly unconventional. The camera is predominantly handheld, rarely static, situated in interior locations with most exterior shots either blurred, out of focus or shrouded in freezing mist. Nolan is unconcerned with spreading out historical vistas or dazzling us with period detail; instead he wants us to focus on the detail of the characters. Like a street-illusionist making coins dance across his knuckles, he draws his audience in as close as possible. The harder we’re looking, the more we’re concentrating, the more effective his ultimate misdirection will prove.
We begin with Michael Caine carefully handling a twitchy yellow canary as he explains the three acts of a magic trick — the set-up, the performance and the effect, or prestige — to a young girl. He makes the bird disappear, seemingly crushing it to death in the process. As he does so, we cut to a grave-looking Hugh Jackman, as Rupert Angier (aka The Great Danton), performing a spectacular trick that features blue crackles of electricity writhing around a towering array of machinery that wouldn’t look out of place in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. The audience gasps in half-fearful anticipation; Angier invites members of the crowd on stage. One of them is Christian Bale, as Alfred Borden (aka The Professor), in disguise, face swathed in shadow. Borden ducks into the wings, barging into a stagehand who tries to block his way. “I’m part of the trick, you idiot!” he bellows, whipping off his fake beard. Soon after, something terrible has happened and Borden is charged with murder. While gaoled, he’s given Angier’s diary. He begins reading it, triggering a flashback in which we see Angier reading Borden’s memoirs, which triggers yet another flashback. Framing device frames framing device, flashbacks switch to flashforwards, and quickly we’re entangled in a murky conundrum.
Nolan keeps the mood eerie and unsettling, and with all its Gothic trimmings The Prestige comes to feel a little like a slowburn horror picture. Of course, it’s never that simple, and the director requires his leads to deliver a pair of carefully complex performances, like stage assistants for whom a single wrong move or missed mark can spell disaster for the unfurling illusion.
Hugh Jackman, revealing the acting depths that the likes of X-Men and Van Helsing have denied him, is at first glance an obvious fit for Angier. The Great Danton is a consummate showman, all smooth moves and glistening repertoire. Yet beneath the sheen simmers an increasingly sour man who, while initially armed with a hatred of Borden, becomes fixated on stealing the secret of his key trick and bettering it, wringing the morality out of his soul in the process. The closest we’ve come to seeing Jackman exploring such dark places was in X-Men 2, but here we are truly seeing a new side to him — Jackman for adults, if you like.
At this point, it’d be nice to shove in an easy reference to ‘sparks flying’ between Jackman and his co-star Christian Bale. Yet they share surprisingly little screentime. Angier and Borden’s relationship predominantly involves watching each other from the stalls, peeping through disguises and stalking in the darkness, with a blast of violence every now and again. Much of their conflict throughout the film is via proxies: Olivia, the glamorous assistant who becomes a shared love (Scarlett Johansson, struggling so hard with an English accent she forgets to engage her audience, trilling the film’s only bum note); Cutter, the sagacious mentor who believes it’s pointless getting into magic unless you’re prepared to get your hands dirty (a superb Michael Caine); and Tesla, the reclusive electrical pioneer who possibly holds the key to the mystery (David Bowie — the quirky casting only just paying off thanks to his discomfitingly glassy delivery).
It’s Bale, though, who has the toughest job of the cast. Borden is the unsung genius, an awkward, brusque man who isn’t interested in embellishing the usual set of conjurations but in crafting something entirely new. His crowd-pleasing instincts initially stink, but his devotion to his art is powerfully all-consuming, much to the detriment of his marriage. Both his character and many of his actions suggest he’s the bad guy of the piece, but Bale, sensitively tempering Borden’s gloomy intensity, ensures our sympathies are maintained throughout — at times he comes dangerously close to snatching them fully away from Jackman.
The true nature of The Prestige, the themes it explores in its own, strange, fractured manner, can’t, won’t and shouldn’t be discussed here. This movie isn’t just some stylish analogy for the pitfalls of celebrity, and there’s far more to it than its dissection of the corrupting effects of obsession and retribution. Certainly, some of its many sharp turns could confound to the point of exasperation. Some will angrily decry it as cheating. And indeed, the problem with movie-making as sleight-of-hand is you have to reveal the secret at some point; you have to show where that dove went. That’s a problem no magician has to deal with. Yet Nolan, pulling off a masterful adaptation of a difficult novel, performs his big reveal — which, you may be surprised to read, does come at the end — with faultless precision. But that’s all we’ll say, and that’s where we’ll leave it. You wouldn’t want us to spoil the prestige now, would you?
Odd, but brilliantly so. It's a small film that feels big, a period drama that looks modern, defying comparison to anything but Nolan himself.