Christopher Nolan has a knack of making films that are extremely enjoyable in a popcorn-flick kind of way, and yet are also intelligent and worthy of deeper consideration. Batman Begins is close to the best comic book adaptation yet, and his caped crusader had a new depth and darkness. In The Prestige he has again succeeded, delivering both thrills and excitement as well as requiring both thoughtfulness and attention.
Warned up front to watch closely, and then told the basic structure of the film in the guise of explaining the architecture of stage illusion, the audience has a lot expected of them in The Prestige. The tale is told in several separate but connected timelines, with neither date-stamping nor narration to explain their relative positions in the storyline. As if that weren’t enough, the film is full of overt misdirection and subtle suggestion – an uneasy sense pervades, that things of importance are being missed, while those of irrelevance are noted. One can never be sure of ones assumptions, nor if the tidbits of information are crucial or red herring. For those who find mystery thrillers difficult to watch, Nolan may just be asking too much.
Christian Bale is wonderful again, and is fast becoming one of Hollywood’s most reliable leads. His Alfred Borden, brilliant magician but lacklustre showman, is intense and angry, and dominates his scenes. Bale is balanced by Hugh Jackman, who gives what may be his best screen performance to date as less talented but more showy Robert Angier. His eventual decline into obsessive madness is quite brilliant, and his additional turn as Gerald Root showcases his range. The remaining cast, including Michael Caine (in yet another supporting role in a busy 2006) and Scarlett Johansson, are all impressive, and David Bowie is intriguing as Nikola Tesla.
The main problem with The Prestige is that although it will mean different things to different people, and some may rejoice at the tidy way all the strands come together at the end, others will find this diminishes the mystery and intrigue. Plot threads and timelines are merged so cleanly that it feels more like showing off than is natural. Additionally, the film is firmly rooted in the late 19th century, and Nolan does a wonderful job of evoking this era – on-screen audience astonishment at what science can offer is tempered by its treatment as sideshow spectacle – and yet the outcome requires a leap of faith towards science fiction that weakens the whole basis of the story in simple illusion.
While The Prestige contains excellent performances, it always feels as though Nolan is trying to be just a little too clever, with his multiple timelines and hints and misdirections. Stripped of these extravagances, the plot is straightforward and the outcome predictable, aside from the somewhat fantastical sci-fi manner in which resolution is found. Enjoyable, but perhaps not for everyone, and certainly not for those who wish their entertainment to be a little less like hard work.Rating: