The Prestige is writer/director Christopher Nolan’s fourth major work. He burst onto the scene in 2000 with the amazing mind bender Memento and with each subsequent film he has seen his stock rise. 2005’s excellent and successful Batman Begins announced Nolan as a mainstream force to be reckoned with. The Prestige shares many elements in common with Nolan’s previous works, from the complex narrative structure, to the dark feel, to the psychologically maladjusted male protagonists and further demonstrates Nolan’s storytelling prowess.
The Prestige tells the story of two rival magicians, Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, respectively), in early 1900’s London. The opening scene shows us, out of context, the incident that leads to Borden being condemned to death for the murder of Angier. From there, the narrative splits into three interwoven parts—two that take place in the past and one in the present. The present narrative shows us Borden’s short trial and imprisonment. While in prison, Borden receives and reads the late Angier’s diary, which recounts his journey to Colorado to seek out the reclusive Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), whom Angier believes to know the secret to an amazing magic trick devised by Borden. While on his trip to Colorado, Angier deciphers and reads a diary, written in code, that he had stolen from Borden. The contents of the two diaries, as well as the contexts in which they were written, comprise the film’s two narratives that take place in the past. They reveal how a tragic mistake by Borden costs Angier dearly and how the pride and obsession of the two lead them to take increasingly drastic measures to harm each other until it ultimately costs Angier his life and Borden his freedom. After the events surrounding Angier’s death are revealed the present narrative takes over and blows your mind.
The story is interesting and is told with great skill. It’s a thrill to watch as all the elements of the plot fall into place. And the thematic exploration of the costs of competitive obsession and vengeance is done in an interesting and thoughtful way. This, added to the top-notch performances by the two leads as well as the supporting cast, which includes the aforementioned Bowie, Andy Serkis, Scarlett Johansson, and the venerable Michael Cain, is enough for me to heartily recommend The Prestige.
However, I do have some complaints. First and foremost is that the characters are not fully fleshed-out, which I attribute to the writing rather than the acting. There is so much going on with the narrative that we don’t have time to really get to know the main characters. I never sympathized with the characters or fully understood what was driving them to take such extreme measures to hurt one another (and themselves in the process). Without strong characters, the complex narrative structure feels like an exercise. It becomes an end in itself rather than a vehicle for understanding.
Another complaint I have is with the distracting meta-fictional elements throughout the film. It’s hard to escape the film-as-magic-trick and filmmaker-as-magician parallels that Nolan is drawing, and this is particularly obtrusive in some climactic scenes where characters are not only speaking for themselves, but also for the filmmaker. I’m a little tired of filmmakers intruding into their films. It strikes me as somewhat vain, as if I should care why Mr. Nolan really really likes filmmaking. Other recent offenders on this front include Tim Burton (Big Fish) and, most egregiously, M. Night Shyamalan (Lady in the Water). I can only hope that Nolan has gotten it out of his system so he can get on with making a brilliant follow-up to Batman Begins.
Those complaints aside, I can say that The Prestige is an engaging film and a good time. It will leave you with a lot to think about, both in relation to the themes as well as piecing the plot together. In my mind, the filmmaking skill on display here, added to the consistency of Nolan’s previous work, secures him a place in the upper echelon of current filmmakers.