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The Prestige

By Dave Best

As the days grow shorter and summer starts to wind down, it seems appropriate for us to take a moment to pause and reflect on the event which will no doubt define 2012 for years to come. The planning was meticulous, the execution flawless, and no expense was spared in order to bring spectacle and wonder to an enraptured global audience. All over the world, people came together as one to celebrate and bear witness as herculean champions competed against one another for our entertainment. I am talking, of course, about The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan’s genre-rejuvenating Batman trilogy. Alongside such other critically acclaimed fan favourites as Memento (2000) and Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises further cemented Nolan as one of the most talented filmmakers working today whilst fanning the flames of my man-crush on Tom Hardy to dangerous heights. However, there is one Nolan helmed film which seems to have never quite gotten the recognition it deserves: his 2006 period piece, The Prestige. 

Based on the 1995 book of the same name by Christopher Priest, The Prestige tells the tale of an increasingly out-of-hand game of one-upmanship which develops between former colleagues turned rival stage magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), in turn of the twentieth century London.  Borden is a capable and dedicated working-class magician hampered by his poor sense of showmanship, whilst well-to-do Angier is a natural and engaging performer who is perpetually frustrated that he cannot match Borden’s raw talent. A tragic incident early in their careers sets the two against one another, and when Borden debuts his new, jaw dropping and seemingly unexplainable headline illusion, Angier becomes unhealthily obsessed with uncovering his nemesis’ secret and stealing the trick.

After the show they were jailed for public indecency
Neither Angier nor Borden is exactly what could be described as a "good guy"; they are single-minded, selfish men whose professional successes come at the expense of everything and everyone else in their lives. Having two dark, ruthless characters with few obvious redeeming features as the main focus of the film could have led to a situation where the audience doesn’t have a relatable character to root for, but thanks to superb casting The Prestige doesn’t suffer from this problem. Bale and Jackman are each perfectly suited to their roles and channel elements of their own personalities into their characters, giving them a very realistic and relatable feel. It’s no insult to say that neither actor had to work very hard to bring their character to life. Jackman’s theatre background and comfort on the stage is put to great use as the show-pony, extrovert Angier, whilst Bale’s more methodical acting style and erratic personality reflects perfectly in the serious and explosive Borden.  There is also an excellent supporting cast backing the two leads up: Michael Caine brings real warmth and class to proceedings as both the framing voiceover and Angier’s engineer, whilst Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall are, despite their limited screen time, impactful in their portrayals of the unfortunate women in the magicians' lives. 

The Prestige is as close to this as we're ever likely to get
The non-linear script, co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, is an exceptional piece of screenwriting. It is engrossing and entertaining from start to finish, which is no mean feat considering the two hours and ten minutes running time. The plot is woven expertly to mimic a magic trick as it unfolds, teasing and suggesting certain possibilities before revealing something altogether more unexpected and shocking as the curtain falls. It is difficult to talk about the plot without giving away some pretty big spoilers but suffice to say there are some real “holy shit” moments in this film, and the ending is a crescendo of entertaining plot twists. One of these reveals in particular is quite divisive, with some critics labelling it a “cheat” which undermines the rest of the film.  Without going into detail, all I will say about this is that misdirection and deception are two of the most important elements in stage magic, and as such, it should come as no surprise that they form recurring themes in this film. 

Books - like films but more...papery
The Prestige is also an excellent example of how to successfully adapt a book for the big screen. The source novel is a brilliant, inventive piece of work which I thoroughly recommend you read, but if the Nolans had simply tried to recreate it verbatim on film it would have been a disaster. The novel takes an epistolary approach to the narrative, delivering it via a series of journal entries and letters which are discovered by the modern day ancestors of Angier and Borden; it is a really effective way of framing and presenting the story in book form, but it would have been a nightmare to try and duplicate this method in the film and also would have probably lead to a rather dry and static end product. Instead, the Nolans took the existing central characters and themes and re-worked them drastically, putting their own recognisable stamp on the proceedings. The plot is at times glaringly different to that of the book and yet it still manages to maintain the atmosphere and intent of the original novel. The result is a film which is somehow both faithful to and radically different from the novel, which is an impressive trick to pull off, by anyone’s standards. 

For further information visit The Prestige's IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0482571

Suggested further viewing: Memento (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Fighter (2010)