I fear that August’s release of The Illusionist will do an unexpected harm to The Prestige. The harm is unexpected in that despite being about Belle Epoque magicians, these films are very, very different, despite audience perception. Where the Illusionist is about the rivalry of a lowly magician and a crazed duke, with a little murder mystery thrown in, The Prestige chronicles the parallel rivalries of two magicians through the intimacies of diaries and the public arena of the stage, exploring dualities in lives built on secrets and magic.
For those of us who have read Christopher Priest’s excellent novel, the film adaptation of The Prestige is a narrative improvement overall – a rare treat to love the movie more than its source material. Screenwriters Jonathan and Christopher Nolan (Memento as writers; Nolan directed Memento and this, as well as Batman Begins) sketch a tight double helix of narrative arcs, following the two leads forward and backward through time to my perpetual delight. Most of the minor story changes were for the better of the overall work. The three stages of an illusion are being deconstructed by the screenplay even as they are being adhered to. It’s a screenwriting treat overall, even if it leaves a little plot hole right in the middle.
The film overall is very elegant and reverent of the craft of illusionmaking and the novel itself. Nolan vets Christian Bale and Michael Caine’s characters feel a little like their respective Batman Begins characters in the beginning, but they shake it off by Act II. Hugh Jackman gets to give us some new work we haven’t gotten to see much of before. Jackman is so patently a Movie Star as an actor that he occasionally inadvertently outshines his scene partners; he especially out-glitzes Bale’s slow simmer in a manner that truly serves their characters well.
Did I mention that Andy Serkis and David Bowie are also in this movie? I won’t reveal who they play, but they are perfectly cast and plenty of fun to watch. I haven’t mentioned Scarlett Johansson only because I felt she was a little dialed in. Her gorgeous dame mode is dialed up to 8, but her role’s importance compared to the novel gets washed over a bit.
I can understand an audience member being non-plussed by the final act of the film and its revelations; I agree that to much is revealed to the audience too soon at times. If you can appreciate the intimacy of this rivalry and the parallels of their respective damnations, you’ll appreciate how deft this film really is. The surface gloss loses some of its shine, like a well-worn stage trick, but the deeper story is strong.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 10/20/06
Time in minutes 128
Director Christopher Nolan
Studio Warner Brothers