“Are you watching closely?” reads the tagline for Christopher Nolan’s film of Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige. Judging by remarks I’ve overheard by viewers exiting the movie, I can only conclude that more than a few viewers aren’t taking the tagline to heart. Anyone planning on seeing this frequently remarkable, invariably fascinating film needs to take the phrase to heart, because The Prestige demands the viewer’s full attention — something that won’t come as a surprise to admirers of Nolan’s breakthrough film, Memento (2000). As with that earlier film, The Prestige is not for passive viewers. It’s meant for viewers who want to be challenged by and work with the film.
On the surface, The Prestige will doubtless seem like a lighter film than Memento. The truth is that it’s both deeper and better. But its status is that of entertainment, and its cinematic sleight of hand can be seen as merely an outgrowth of the source material’s basic abracadabra storyline. And that’s true enough, but where Memento kept from drifting off into the realm of stunt filmmaking by being anchored to a central thematic preoccupation with memory and the nature of memory (something that also feeds Nolan’s two intervening films, Insomnia (2002) and Batman Begins (2005)), there’s more to The Prestige than meets the eye.
Its greatest trick is that it’s a meditation on the nature of reality and identity disguised as entertainment — something I’m only fully realizing three days after seeing it. My suspicion is that this theme will become even more apparent on subsequent viewings. Unfortunately, this aspect of the film cannot be discussed in any depth without significantly damaging the delicious deceptions of its convoluted plot. That plot is such terrific storytelling in its own right that I have no intention of spoiling it by saying too much here.
Nolan and his brother Jonathan (who also co-wrote Memento) have taken Priest’s novel and adapted it to their own ends — removing an entire portion of the book (the modern story), restructuring it and, in some cases, reworking the story — yet preserving the novel’s essence and integrity. In several instances, they’ve improved on the source. The rivalry between magicians Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is more credibly defined in the film than in the book, which is frankly rather clunky in this regard. The addition of material involving the full-scale war waged against inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) by Thomas Edison gives the film an added edge and provides a splendid bit of drama not found in the book.
Other changes may not improve the material, but make better cinema than a literal transcription of the novel would have done. (It also allows for a final image that beautifully evokes Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 masterpiece The Black Cat.) Perhaps the most significant change, though, is not so much a change as an elaboration — a fleshing out of the concept that Angier is a natural performer, but not a natural magician, while Borden is exactly the reverse. In the context of the film’s themes this is a significant development, yet one that Nolan trusts the viewer to pick up on without any spoon-feeding.
The surprising thing is that The Prestige works perfectly well as a pitch-black thriller (the two main characters are far from admirable, and that’s understating the case) with science-fiction overtones. It’s also a film that, like a good magic trick, refuses to give up all its secrets, leaving the viewer deliberately in the dark about the truth or illusion of what was just seen — at least parts of what’s seen — and is savvy enough to rightly suggest that we as viewers are complicit in this, because we want to believe what we want to believe.
It’s quite possible to read the film on this level and go no deeper. It is, after all, a riveting story of trickery and magic, deceit and betrayal. And it’s acted by a perfect cast of high-caliber talent. The larger thematic concerns, however, not only make The Prestige a richer experience, but whether or not grasped on a conscious level, they imbue the film with the disturbing sense of darkness that gives it its overall tone. But remember — watch closely. Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke