Good lord, it was difficult to choose a Christopher Nolan film to talk about. Quite frankly, the fact the man has become a prestigious name for entertainment on a massive scale. His consistency in sharp thrills and a natural ability to get the best out of filmmaking equipment, whether it be 16mm film or IMAX, has been a humongous factor in his achievement of being a household name. Coming up with a personal favourite was a challenge because you have the obvious Batman films, but I wanted a film that showed just how amazing a director Nolan can be, and while the films are undeniably ground-breaking, I don’t think they showcase Nolan’s skills and knowledge. At least not nearly enough as they do in The Prestige.
Made in 2006, The Prestige is the story of a rivalry between two magicians in 1890’s London. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) begin as friends working in the magicians’ circuit until they both launch their careers as magicians. When Borden develops The Transporting Man trick, Angier becomes fixated with discovering how it’s done and the rivalry between them turns into an obsession that consumes them.
This film is magic in so many ways other than being great. Christopher Nolan has learned the formula of a magic trick and applied it to the whole picture, the narrative is structured like a trick. Michael Caine’s voiceover literally tells you how this film’s story is going to play out. There is one factor however involved in a trick that makes this particular Nolan film a cut above all others. The art of misdirection is hiding in plain sight, and The Prestige hides the clues to the film’s mysteries. Now I’ve told you this, you’re probably saying “Well I’m going to look extra hard when I watch this”, don’t bother, because you’ll be scratching your head all the same. This is the best script Christopher and his brother Jonathan have penned together, it almost functions as a prestigious example of narrative immersion as you’re scouring through the scenes for information because we’re already aware that every moment is valuable.
Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman absolutely nail this intense rivalry. What I especially admire about their performances is how they portray their character’s different philosophies about magic. Robert is in the business to make money from entertaining the masses, but with Alfred, it’s all about placing magic in the highest ordeal and devoting your life to the art of magic. I think people will be particularly impressed with how great Hugh Jackman is in The Prestige. Christian Bale had already come from a remarkable streak of amazing performances with the award nominations to prove it, but for many at the time, this was the first time they had seen a Hugh Jackman performance that didn’t involve adamantium claws.
Michael Caine is of course in this film as John Cutter, a mentor who sides with Robert once the rivalry accelerates and this is one of the most subtle Caine performances because, in films like Nolan’s Dark Knight series, even though Caine is playing Alfred, there is still a bit of the real Caine that audiences pick up on. In the Prestige however, never at any point did I think I was watching Michael Caine playing a character, I just saw John Cutter.
Something that hardly gets praised in this film is the parallels Christopher Nolan uses. One such parallel is the inclusion of a real-life rivalry that had a similar nature to the one on display here is the rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Both make an appearance in the film, but it is Tesla (David Bowie) who has a bigger role in the story. The Edison versus Tesla rivalry features men who mirror Robert and Alfred’s philosophies of money-making and artistry and it is a way of telling the audience that the finer details matter in this film, so pay attention.
The Prestige is not Dunkirk or Interstellar. It doesn’t overwhelm us with wide-angle shots or non-linear storytelling that we’ve come to expect of him nowadays. But that doesn’t mean the scale hasn’t completely gone, in fact, Nolan uses the large scale on a smaller level to infatuate the audience with showmanship, another essential element in magic tricks. The reaction this showmanship gets is about on par with many of his breath-taking scenes over the years.
The Prestige is a magic trick in every possible way, shape, or form. Christopher Nolan takes the traditional three-act structure of a narrative and blends it with the structure of a magic trick. While Nolan has been continuing and expanding of the sheer breadth of how epic a film can be, The Prestige has been quietly forming its own brilliance. Watching this film now compared to when I first saw it, I have a bigger respect for it and I believe that it has gotten better with age.