I don’t usually tend to watch films based on books I know, partly because the kind of books I like very rarely get adapted to film, but more often because I find it very hard to sink into the film and enjoy it for itself because a distinct part of me is continually assessing the mechanics of the adaptation: what’s left out, what’s been compressed, how they handled that scene, aaahh, how they dealt with that bit: no, didn’t like that at all.
As you’ll already be aware, I’ve been a long-term follower of Christopher Priest’s work (curious irony: an Amazon pre-order for his newest novel was in my in-box when I logged on today, before watching this film again) and it took me a long time to test what everyone, including Priest himself, had said, namely that this was good, indeed very good.
Re-watching it this morning, after a long break, I found myself oblivious to how the film is structured to adapt the novel, and more concerned to read how many clues there are to the essential mysteries of the film, which of course I knew from knowing the book.
What The Prestige is about is the rivalry between two late-Nineteenth Century stage magicians, Robert Angier (The Great Danton) (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (The Professor – Le Professeur de la Magie in the novel) (Christian Bale). It focuses on their enmity: Borden is responsible for Angier’s wife’s death on stage, is the better magician to Angier’s superior stagemanship, both try to sabotage each other’s acts, spy on each other, etc. Primarily it centres on one trick, The Transported Man, by which each magician disappears in one place and reappears in another almost instantly.
Borden invents it, Angier tries to duplicate it. Each has their own method but it’s not enough to have their own successful act, each has to know the other’s secret.
Director Christopher Nolan, working with a script adapted by his brother Jonathan, takes an achronological approach to the story, working within a frame-story that deals with the aftermath, in which the meat of events is presented as at least two series of flashbacks, and these are not themselves wholly chronological. We begin with a shot of a field full of identical black top hats, which is crucial to one strand of the plot but whose significance is not understood until much later.
Then we find Borden on trial for the murder of Angier, who, as part of the trick, falls through a trapdoor into a locked cabinet of water, where he drowns.
Then we watch John Cutter, Angier’s ingenieur or stage engineer (a lovely, warm performance by Michael Caine) demonstrate a fairly basic magic trick to a little girl, setting up the concept of the three parts of a magic trick: the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige, a three-act structure that the Nolans apply to the screenplay.
I’m undecided as to how much of the film’s secrets or revelations to discuss here. I mean, the novel’s been available since 1995 and the film appeared in 2006, so it’s not like I’m risking significant spoilers, but on the other hand the film does tie itself into quite complex knots to preserve its mysteries to very nearly the end, and I feel under a certain obligation to give in to its obsession. For spoilers, read this.
So, knowing in advance what revelations await, how does the film work? Quite simply, superbly. The film incarnates the period, and Bale and Jackman in their contrasting roles are both outstanding and utterly convincing. The supporting cast are also excellent: Rebecca Hall in the rather understated role of Borden’s wife, Sarah and Scarlett Johansen in the more obvious part of Olivia, mistress and assistant too both Angier and Borden are equally natural, and their duality is, for those aware of the true situation, a vital key to one of the revelations.
Indeed, duality (as opposed to Priestian Unreality) is a key element in The Prestige. Though the film avoids those parts of the book where the same events are described in differing ways according to which magician is seeing them, its objective approach is wrapped up in duplicated experiences on each side. To take one blatant example, at different times each magician obtains possession of the other’s diary, pores over it extensively, and learns that each diary is a plant, ending in a direct address to its intended reader, exposing itself to be a complex manipulation.
Once you begin to understand the extent to which duality is a factor in the presentation of the story, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see into the realities that Chris Nolan wants to withhold until the end. In fact, with foreknowledge, it can be seen that the film overflows with minor clues.
I’ve mentioned the film’s primary cast, though Rebecca Hall is actually a supporting actress, and mention must certainly be made of David Bowie’s mildly-extended cameo as the science/electric pioneer, Nikolai Tesla (with Andy Sirkis, blessedly motion-capture free, as his assistant). Bowie, in a neatly underplayed performance, makes Tesla into a strange, near-alien presence, lending a psychological credence to his producing, out of nowhere, the only genuinely magical element of the entire film, even as it is paraded as not Magic but Science.
This is the other mystery that Nolan wants to withhold until the very end. We’ve seen it in action at the outset, or rather one esoteric aspect of it, and it spurs the film into action as the explanation for why Alfred Borden is on trial, is convicted, is hanged. Put the field of top hats together with the man in the locked cage of water and you can understand the magic without needing the last, final, horrific shot to render explicit what the film has long since given away. All things are duplicated.
Actually, the end is the only disappointing thing about the film. Borden, who has died for killing Angier when he hasn’t killed him, kills Angier (work that one out) but not before the two have a final, cryptic conversation that is far too long and slows the film to a crawl just when it needs to stay taut.
I do have one further complaint about the film, or rather my DVD copy of it, which has the soundtrack mixed so low that, given that so much of it is conducted in whispers, or lowered voices, it was impossible to make out what was being said on many occasions, even with the laptop volume cranked up to 100.
But this is still a great film, and despite its differing intentions, it’s a worthy companion to Christopher Priest’s novel. Different but equal: no better thing can be said about an adaptation.