Based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige was writer and director Christopher Nolan’s follow up to his first big budget blockbuster Batman Begins. Following the novel’s epistolary approach, The Prestige is told in a non-linear, multi-narrative way, similar to Frankenstein. It stars Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall and Nolan regulars Christian Bale and Michael Caine. Released in 2006 it is considered a moderate commercial success having taken $106m from a budget of $40m.
After evidence is given by magic engineer Cutter (Caine), magician Alfred Borden (Bale) is sentenced to death for the murder of rival showman Robert Angier (Jackman) in Victorian London. Awaiting his execution he is visited by a representative of Lord Caldlow who wants to buy the secret of Borden’s greatest trick ˜The Transported Man’ and as a sign of goodwill he gives him the diary of Angier that charts their long-running rivalry, their relationships with Sarah (Hall) and Olivia (Johansson) and the search for the secrets to each others greatest illusions.
Christopher Nolan now has the reputation as a world-building director in the same vein as Ridley Scott. While The Prestige has all the hallmarks of a Victorian period thriller; dark, dank rooms, wily cockney-accented tricksters and a sense of grime and deprivation all around, Nolan is careful not to show too much of the surroundings. Everything is shot in the midst of a classic London ˜Pea Souper’ with thick fog masking any potential vistas or distracting landscapes. This is very much a character piece and there are no distractions from the environment, it’s simply a well-realised interior world with any beauty portrayed through the craft of magic.
Nolan has an eye for casting and The Prestige is no exception. The supporting cast are uniformly superb with Michael Caine’s Cutter the true standout, he brings a level of gravitas to his veteran engineer which instils real threat and tension throughout. Both Johansson and Hall are good in their reduced roles of secondary relationships (behind the art of magic) to the two leads, with the only misstep in casting being David Bowie as Tesla, who brings an odd disjointed performance that threatens to ruin the good work of everyone else, luckily his in it so little that it’s easy to forgive.
But The Prestige is really about the relationship between Borden and Angier, or more importantly their alter egos ˜The Professor’ and ˜The Great Danton.’ While Jackman and Bale spend precious little time on screen together throughout the course of the film, they give such a thorough account of each other that they propel the already fascinating plot to new levels. For the opening acts we follow a never better Jackman as the smooth showman, a man who slowly becomes obsessed with his rival to the detriment of his personal life. He is, at first the hero of the piece, especially compared to the rude and unsophisticated Borden, but as he slips further into obsession, his character becomes poisoned to the point where the audience questions his motivations and the levels he is willing to sink to. It’s a stunning performance for an actor more accustomed to big explosions and witty one-liners.
However the masterful nature of the direction drags our attentions toward Borden, and his social flaws become saturated by the surprisingly heart-felt edge given to the character by Bale. He threatens to steal the whole film from his co-star to the point where you are left, in the end equally impressed with both men. This is The Prestige‘s great strength, the quality of story-telling, combined with standout performances almost across the board and a surprisingly well-handled human element.
If ever there was any doubt in Nolan’s ability, The Prestige should banish them from the public arena. Infused with wonder and excitement, it is the director who is playing a trick on the audience throughout. Some will be sniffy and derisive about the finale, but the rest of us won’t look too hard, because as Cutter explains You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.