In little over a decade Christopher Nolan has gone from one of the most interesting up-and-coming directors to the juggernaut behind the re-invention of the comic book movie. Whilst it would be easy to lay some of the blame for the current glut over large scale, big budget, teen orientated films that now dominate the multiplex, he’s also tried to at least inject a little intelligence into the genre – even if no one else seems to have taken that part of the equation on. Between the first two Bat-behemoths he produced what I still find his best film – The Prestige.
The last of his “smaller budget” films (although $40 million still makes it of a comfortable size given the cast), it also marked the last time that he worked with a script that originated from a different medium. I’ve commented in the past that often directors fail by trying to take the bits that everybody remembers in a book and cram them together as a film, rather than adapting the story to a different medium. Nolan & Co. don’t make this mistake, adapting the story (and in doing so tightening up the twist element into something far more sinister and losing some of the harder to explain elements by strengthening others) and deepening the emotional resonance of the story. Nolan treats the audience with enough intelligence not to preach the morality of the story, but rather allow them to draw their own conclusions. He understands that for us to buy into the story that we are going to see we have to buy into the past lives of the characters wholesale. The story is king here.
The Prestige also marks a clear beginning to Nolan’s approach of letting the story unfold at its own pace. Yes, it does retain the twisting narrative of many of his other films, but it’s also far slower pace – Nolan has confidence in his actors to convince the audience of what they are seeing. Both Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale impress in different ways (both have complex roles, just complex in different ways), but neither is inhabiting a character that is truly likeable. Instead, Michael Caine provides the human aspect of the story, guiding the viewer into the story (and in doing so telling everyone what the trick is in the first five minutes) and offering a way out when the uncomfortable truth emerges. David Bowie reminds us that occasionally he can be called upon to act (this is probably his best role since The Man Who Fell to Earth), bringing an air of the strange to Tesla (a rare case where the truth may be stranger than the fiction) and Andy Serkis gets a rare outing without CGI warpaint, reminding us all that he’s a fine actor in the process. If the film has a weakness it’s that the female roles are underwritten, but that’s an unfortunate truth about Hollywood these days. In truth though the film belongs to Jackman & Bale as our sympathies move between the two as the drama unfolds, although come the end neither deserves either our sympathy or hate – both have acted within the moral frameworks established by their respective characters.
The Prestige is a rare film these days, a medium scaled film that isn’t either a conventional drama nor aimed at capturing a predominantly female audience (a lot of films at this price point are). What begins as a period drama slowly morphs into a strange science fiction film, one that isn’t immediately apparent (the ending is deliberately left open to interpretation). In recent memory only Moon springs to mind as an intelligent science fiction film that treats the audience with the respect to assume they’ll be able to keep up. For me though The Prestige remains the stronger film because the science fiction isn’t apparent at the start, the twist is unexpected. There may have been better films in 2006, but The Prestige remains one of the few that creates a different discussion every times it’s watched – and that’s what makes it interesting.