The Prestige Review
Christopher Priest writes marvellous Science Fiction but, The Space Machine apart, it’s not the stuff of death rays, monsters and alien spaceships. His genre work is frequently all about identities, perceptions of reality and unreliable narrators, and the trappings of SF, while often crucial to the whole, are used sparingly. The Prestige is one of his very best novels, a dark and deliciously gothic take on the Victorian magic industry written in an extraordinarily complex manner. Flashbacks occur within flashbacks, journal entries are written by the wrong people and the past and present begin to coalesce in a way which would wow the Booker Prize judges if they were capable of looking beyond genre snobbery.
The plot of both book and film concerns the rivalry between two turn-of-the-century magicians; Alfred Borden (Bale) and Rupert Angier aka The Great Danton (Jackman). After an accident, for which Borden is partially responsible, leaves Angier a widower, the two men begin to play increasingly elaborate revenge scams on each other – the results leave Borden without the use of two fingers and Angier lame in one leg. But the really contentious issue is Borden’s brilliantly original trick, “The Transported Man”, an illusion which Angier cannot work out or successfully copy. His efforts to duplicate the trick lead him to Colorado Springs and the laboratory of the great Nikola Tesla (Bowie). When he returns to England, Angier has his own version of the trick, one with a distinctly dangerous scientific edge.
Christopher Nolan’s film of The Prestige is surprisingly faithful to its source; not in terms of page by page fidelity but in the sense of capturing the tone and essence of the original. The plot is often considerably different but the essentials remain. The novel is a narrative conjuring trick and so is the film, but on screen there is a new level of visual deception which is hugely effective, all the more so for our being continually told the nature of the ‘twist’ – we just disregard it. Like a good magic trick, the information is laid out before us and it is up to us to pay attention. Certainly, Christopher Nolan, along with his co-writer and bother Jonathan, is scrupulously fair; there are constant references to doubling and once you know the twist, you can see how easy it is to spot. But if, like me, you were fooled by trying to over-complicate it, then the final revelation about the nature of Borden’s “Transported Man” trick will come as a real slap-yourself-on-the-forehead moment.
The original novel is a very literary conceit and I was initially worried that in using the vital journals to such an extent that the film might suffer. I needn’t have worried. The visual style of the film is remarkably fluid and a long way removed from the occasional creakiness of period filmmaking. Nolan and his usual DP Wally Pfister shoot very close-in and often use a hand-held camera to maintain a sense of pace which provides a jarring effect that is very appropriate for a film which has feet in two genre camps – period film and SF. It’s often very dark, the decision to use available light where possible creating a very particular atmosphere – a preternatural realism which is so heightened as to seem somehow fantastic. The production values are splendid throughout, particularly Nathan Crowley’s stunning street sets and Joan Bergin’s note-perfect costumes.
What is equally successful is the recreation of period values. The class conflict between Angier and Borden is fundamental to their rivalry – Angier is the product of the landed upper class, changing his name to avoid embarrassing his family, while Borden comes from a background of grinding poverty. Magic represents a way up the career ladder for Borden, much as football would today, and he regards himself as having earned his fame while Angier has his handed to him. In the novel, neither man is remotely sympathetic. In the film, Borden is given the edge though many viewers may wonder whether he really deserves any more of their empathy than Angier. Who is the better magician? That’s something for the viewer to decide but I think that there’s only one true magician in the film and it’s neither Angier nor Borden; it’s Tesla, whose scientific brilliance crosses the line from the rational into the supernatural and blurs the two.
There’s also a very clear and bitter view of the role played by women in Victorian society. Although it’s a bit early for the mass suffragette movement, women are already beginning to question what life has to offer them and the ways in which they are treated by the two protagonists in The Prestige reflect the closing off of their life choices by society. One woman, Borden’s wife Sarah (Hall), ends up dead, an alcoholic wreck. Angier’s wife Julia (Perabo) is killed in a pathetically random act of mutual carelessness. The gorgeous and duplicitous assistant Olivia Wenscombe (Johansson) is passed between men like so much small change and retains her dignity only by being able to tell them the truth.
The performances in the film are top-notch, with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman playing off each other like a couple of old pros and Bale manages the difficult task of suggesting how much it costs to live an illusion. The three main female parts are also strongly cast, although fans of Ms. Johansson may be disappointed to see her underused. As the sad wife of Borden, Rebecca Hall is particularly striking. One of the principle pleasures of the film is seeing Michael Caine on the very top of his form. Coming alongside his excellent turn in Children of Men, this signals something of a renaissance for one of my favourite actors.
In fact, the acting is so strong throughout that it seems to have infected David Bowie and reversed the usual trend of him being the most embarrassing thing in any film where he shows up.
The Prestige is a clever and rather ruthless film; ruthless in the sense of being single-minded in its approach to tricking the audience. It lacks the human centre of the book, particularly the final chapters which are heart-stopping in their metaphysical implications. But it looks fantastic, is well played and never fails to entertain. I’m pleased to report that Christopher Nolan has maintained his one hundred percent strike-rate with this one and I can’t wait to see what he does with The Dark Knight.
The disc under review is the R3 Warner Brothers DVD which was officially released on the 20th February.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is generally a stunner. The level of detail is staggering throughout and the colours are gloriously rich and full. Blacks are suitably deep and there is no problem with excessive grain. The only very minor problem I spotted was a very small amount of blocking in the foggy scenes set in the woods of Colorado Springs. This is by no means present throughout the scenes in question though and I think most viewers will be more than happy with this image.
Also highly impressive is the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Dialogue scenes range around the front channels and the surrounds come into play with ambient effects and the music score.
The major disappointment of this release comes with the extra features. The film cries out for a commentary track but we have to be satisfied with a collection of brief featurettes, a photo gallery and a trailer. The featurettes are five in number and can be watched either individually or as a block. The total running time is roughly 20 minutes and this indicates how superficial they are. Christopher Nolan gives us some of his thoughts, as do most of the main cast and crew, but it’s only when Christopher Priest turns up that anything very original or exciting gets said. There are quite a lot of film clips padding out the running time as well. The photo gallery is quite extensive, covering stills from the film, behind the scenes shots, sets and costumes and the release posters.
A choice of subtitles is provided for both the film and the documentaries. The movie is divided into 24 chapter stops.
I imagine it’s possible that a 2-disc special edition may appear in due course but, for the moment, this is the best we’ve got.