2006 has been a quiet year for event films. The predicted blockbusters this past summer pretty much underperformed despite some being exactly as good as I thought they'd be. Other than Johnny Depp and the gang's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, every blockbuster didn't blow the industry out of the water. It's a very good thing that I had smaller films to tide me over. This year has been a very good ones for some independent-minded and smaller films which came out during the slow first couple months of the year and during the graveyard release months between the end of summer and the start of the late year holidays. I've already had the chance to see such very good films like Running Scared from Wayne Kramer and Hard Candy from David Slade to The Proposition from John Hillcoat. I am glad to say that Christopher Nolan's film adaptation of Christopher Priest's novel, The Prestige is another non-blockbuster that excites, entertains and, in the end, keeps the audience mystified but not confused.
I've read Christopher Priest's novel about dueling late 19th-century London magicians. It's a novel written in epistolary format with each chapter and section written as entries into the journal of one of the main characters in the story. The novel itself is pretty straightforward as it tells the story in near chronological order. I was hesistant to embrace this film adaptation when I first heard about it since alot of the mystery of of the story wouldn't translate so well in film if they followed the strict order of how the story was told in the novel. For Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, to just adapt the novel straight-out would've made for a dull and boring mystery-thriller. I was glad that the Nolan brothers were inventive enough to borrow abit from Christopher Nolan's first feature film, Memento. Their film adaptation of The Prestige doesn't go backwards in its narrative, but it does mixes up the chronological order of the story somewhat, but not to the point that Tarantino does in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. The two Nolans fudges abit with the timeline to add some backstory filler to help give the characters that Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman portrays with the reason for their pathological obsession with each other.
Christopher and Jonathan Nolan's screenplay for The Prestige was able to keep the mystery of the story intact, but it also keeps the amount of red herrings in such films to a minimum. Michael Caine's character, Harry Cutter, opens up the film explaining just exactly what constitutes a magic trick on stage. How it's divided into three parts. First, there's "The Pledge" wherein the magician shows the audience something ordinary he or she will use in the trick. Soon, the magician will follow this up with "The Turn" where the abovementioned ordinary object does something extraordinary in front of the audience. The pay-off of the magician's trick is "The Prestige" where the audience's astonishment occurs as they fail to deconstruct and figure out the means of the trick. That's pretty much the film in a nutshell. It's one big magic trick. The clues are there for the audience to see, gather and extrapolate their answer to the mystery that is the story. The screenplay doesn't treat the audience as if they need to be hand-held throughout the film. In fact, anyone who pays attention will be able to solve one-half of the mystery by the first hour. I won't say exactly whose half of the mystery it will be but people will be kicking themselves afterwards if they don't figure it out right away.
This magic trick of a film does have its many underlying layers of themes to add some complexity, drama and tension to the characters of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman). I've already mentioned that throughout the film their mutual obsession about each other is due to a backstory detailing their past. A past where they were initially friends --- rivals even --- and apprentices to the magician Harry Cutter (excellently played by Michael Caine as the only voice of reason throughout the film). Borden and Angier's obsession is not just in ruining and sabotaging each other's magic tricks and lives, but also trying to find out each other's secrets as they both learn magic tricks which amaze and thrill the gentry of London's stage. From the beginning of the film these two characters begin a journey towards a path of destructive behavior which puts not just each other's lives at risk, but those who they care about. All of it in the name of humiliating and upstaging the other due to a tragic incident early in their mutual careers. These two individuals were not sympathetic characters and I applaud Christopher Nolan and his brother for not softening up their hard edges.
Most adaptors will try to make a story's characters more sympathetic and likable. They went the opposite in The Prestige. But even these two dark characters continue to exude the charisma and strong personalities that the audience will root for one or the other. Should they root for the charismatic and born shownman that Hugh Jackman's Angier character plays or go for the perfectionist Borden character Christian Bale plays. A perfectionist whose technical skills surpasses that of Angier's but whose introverted and brooding personality makes him little or no stage presence.
Both Jackman and Bale play their characters well. The film wouldn't be so good if it wasn't for the work of these two actors. It helps that they're surrounded by quality supporting character like Michael Caine as the seasoned, veteran mentor to the dueling magicians. Even Scarlett Johansson does very well with the part she's given. It's a part that many sees as more of a throwaway character. A piece of very good-looking distraction for both the story and the audience. But she gamely plays the role of pawn for both Angier and Borden. Unlike Michael Caine's character who remains the singular voice of sanity in the film, even Johansson's character of Olivia gets pulled into the obsessions and betrayals that's plagued both Angier and Borden. But in the end, she's just part of the process of "The Turn" and if people have been watching the film closely right from the beginning then she's also a clue as to the secret of one of the amazing magic tricks shown by the two magicians.
The Prestige also has a distinct look about it. The 19th-century London just before the start of the new millenium gives it a certain sense of Victorian-era familiarity. Production designer Nathan Crowley shows a London at the height of its Gilded Age, but soon gives way to a certain steampunk look as inventor Nikola Tesla makes an appearance during an integral part of the story. David Bowie portrays Tesla as an eccentric genius whose search for the secrets of the universe will lead to the discovery of what many of that era would consider magic. It's the ingenius looking technology created for the Tesla sequence which finally gives The Prestige it's root in fantasy and science-fiction. The film doesn't dwell on this new development but from that part of the story and until the end, the film takes on a look and feel of a steampunk mystery-thriller. There's not enough films that tries to mine this new subgenre and I, for one, am glad that Christopher Nolan added this new dimension to the film's overall look.
In the end, The Prestige really needs to be seen to be appreciated and for people to make up their minds about the film. Some will see it as a thriller with twists and turns that doesn't insult the intelligence of its audience. Some may see the film as just one large gimmick from start to end. Those people will probably be correct as well. The film at its most basic level is one long magic trick with all three acts. It has "The Pledge" which is then followed up by "The Turn" and then ends with "The Prestige". It will be up to each individual who sees the film to make the final decision as to whether they've bought into all three acts of the magic trick that is The Prestige, or come away having felt like they've wasted their time. I've not come across many who felt like the latter, even those whose own feelings about the film don't reach the same level of praise as I have for Christopher Nolan's latest offering. All I know is that this is a film that delivers on its premise to confound and amaze. It also continues to validate my views that Bruce Wayne and Batman are in very good hands with Christopher Nolan at the wheel. The Prestige is easily one of the best film of 2006.