The Prestige (film)

CP is often asked what he thinks of the film of The Prestige. In 2008 he published a full-length book called The Magic, to answer that question. But since not everyone is expected to buy the book in pursuit of a fleeting interest, here is a short note written as a summary. (Even so, The Magic may be purchased from this website: click here to find out more.)

CP on Christopher Nolan’s film of The Prestige:
I like and admire the following –
The seriousness of approach, the lack of levity, the quality of the direction.
The indirect, multi-level narrative.
The fact that there were no car chases, no songs, no sex scenes, no guns used to resolve issues (with one small exception). There was also no gratuitous violence, and CGI was kept to a minimum.
The photography was beautiful, and at times artful.
The sense of period was good.
The performance of Ching Ling Foo’s signature illusion was mounted well, and Hugh Jackman’s attempt at reproducing it moments later was convincing.
Christian Bale acted with conviction; Scarlett Johannson was not given enough to do, but looked lovely and made the best of a difficult part; Andy Serkis and Rebecca Hall also did well with under-written parts; Hugh Jackman was OK; Michael Caine acted well.
I also like the fact that every time I have seen the film in a cinema the audience has sat attentively to follow the complicated narrative, and that as they leave the cinema the people are always talking about what they have just seen. (They are obviously engaged by the film, but also sometimes pleasantly mystified by it.)
I am much less impressed by –
The ending. In the novel the central mystery about Borden is not concealed from the reader. Most readers of the book work things out for themselves once it becomes apparent that there is a mystery. Christopher Nolan did not grasp this subtlety. In his film he tried to hide the mystery, then weakly presented the revelation of it as a “twist” ending.
The lack of a modern story to set the historical context of the feud between Angier and Borden.
The sound level. Nolan encouraged his actors to whisper many of their exchanges. This was particularly so in the final scene, when Bale and Jackman were explaining the twist ending to each other.
The wooden performance of David Bowie. The role of Nicolai Tesla is one of the most important in the story, and should have presented a decent actor with a meaty part. Bowie was merely adequate in the part.
The reversal of motives in the scene in which Jackman pleaded with Johannson to spy on Bale. In the novel, the suggestion comes from the woman, which in context of the story, not to mention the period, makes much more psychological sense.
The music. One of Christopher Nolan’s strengths is not his taste in music.
The pop song played over the final credits, which was completely out of key with the rest of the film. Another big hint that Nolan has a tin ear for music.
Overall –
I liked what I liked much more than I disliked what I disliked, and found many scenes admirable. The opening is particularly effective, as is the presentation of some of the magic. There is sensitivity and skill throughout, but not flashy, show-off skill, as has been apparent in some of Nolan’s more recent films.
As is described in The Magic I had the unusual opportunity to select the director of the film, and chose Nolan because I sensed he was a young man with a vivid and unusual cinematic imagination. I believe he amply displayed that talent in his early film Memento, and also in The Prestige. I have found his other films disappointing. Insomnia was a routine Hollywood thriller, which could have been directed by anybody; the Batman films, although technically brilliant, were risible, poorly written and likely to date badly; while Inception (again a technical achievement) was cinematically derivative and excruciatingly scripted.
I therefore believe The Prestige is the best of Christopher Nolan’s films to date, and if anyone suggests that I would think that, wouldn’t I?, they should read The Magic to see the exegesis of the whole argument.