Given that Christopher Nolan displayed masterful slight-of-hand with the backwards-unspooling amnesia thriller Memento, he’s the perfect man to adapt Christopher Priest’s novel about a diabolical personal vendetta played out between rival stage magicians in turn-of-the-last-century London. Like Memento, which was based on a short story by Nolan’s younger brother, Jonathan, who here takes co-screenwriter credit, The Prestige boasts a complex and deliberately confounding chronological structure.
Chopped up and reassembled into three interwoven parts, one narrative strand follows sophisticated gentleman magician Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and his gobby working class counterpart Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) as they graduate from fellow stage hands to competitive performers of illusions, the former under the tuition of trick inventor Cutter (Michael Caine). A second narrative strand follows Angier on a trip to America to meet mad scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) in an effort to discover the secret of Borden’s brilliant trick, ‘The Transported Man’, while a third finds Borden imprisoned and awaiting the gallows for the murder of his rival. As the film flashes forwards and backwards between these three strands numerous plot twists are revealed, and it soon becomes clear that by using the language of filmmaking to pull off this series of cleverly contrived narrative tricks, the Nolan brothers are setting themselves up as celluloid magicians. Inkeeping with the magician’s vow never to reveal how his tricks work, however, none of the film’s narrative slights of hand can here be disclosed. Suffice to say, they do for the most part catch the viewer by surprise, and this is the chief pleasure of The Prestige (the title of which is derived from the third and most important part of the performance of a magician’s trick, during which vanished items are reappeared).
In stylistic terms, The Prestige, with its dark and dingy Victorian London setting, doom-laden atmosphere and horror film thrills, resembles Nolan’s previous directing effort Batman Begins (indeed, it’s sandwiched between that film and the forthcoming sequel, The Dark Knight). And beyond the style, there’s some substance to this frequently dazzling film, too, in particular its engagement with a theme that’s been widely associated with Victorian literature - that of ‘the divided self’.
General release from Fri 10 Nov.