Every magic trick has three parts, says Michael Caine to the audience in the first few minutes of The Prestige. They are The Pledge, The Turn and the titular Prestige. With The Pledge, the magician introduces a regular object like say a dove. In The Turn, he does something truly extraordinary by making it disappear for instance. But making something disappear isn’t enough, you have to make the final commitment, you have to bring something back. This is The Prestige. This is a structure that’s key to a lot of magicians and their tricks, in fact the late Ricky Jay, former alumni of Paul Thomas Anderson and who also appears in this film, was a magician in real life himself, and said the following: “Magic is all about structure. You’ve got to take the observer from the ordinary, to the extraordinary, to the astounding.” The ingenuity of Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film is that it takes this structure and applies it to the structure of the film itself, and by then end it almost feels like you’ve been watching a cinematic magic trick, and it’s the best kind of magic trick too.
The Prestige started as a novel by Christopher Priest in 1995. As of this writing I have only just started reading the novel so I can’t really compare the differences from book to film, although I can reveal there is a modern day framing device in the book that was, I think wisely, dropped for the film. Initially Sam Mendes expressed an interest in directing the film but Priest was so impressed with Nolan’s breakout film Memento he proposed Nolan to be the top candidate to direct a film version. Nolan loved the book and immediately started writing the script with his brother Jonathan. Together I think they have crafted one of the most cleverly structured and written films of the 2000s. It’s always the case with Nolan that his films have an unorthodox narrative structure but with the only possible exception being Tenet, they never feel like they’re trying to be clever for the sake of being clever. Cinema is such an unexplored and relatively new medium we still know relatively little about really, so why not take greater risks and try something new. And in the case of The Prestige, it’s never obnoxious but simply entertaining to watch, especially on rewatches.
But Nolan isn’t only interested in plot structure or purely the element of surprise as many of his detractors would claim. One of the great strengths of the movie are the performances from its cast, which is stacked with talent, and I’d even go so far as to say that each actor is perfect for their respective part. Christian Bale infuses Alfred Borden with a harsher, more rough-around-the-edges working class demeanor whose more technically skilled as a magician but not as good with the overall presentation. Hugh Jackman on the other hand plays Robert Angier (Rupert in the novel) like a wealthy aristocrat who is an exceptional showman (much better than he was in that musical from 2017) but needs help and assistance when it comes to the mechanics of the tricks themselves. Both actors fit their part like hands in gloves, and they make you believe in both of them as people and as rivals. They’re also, it should be noted, completely awful and selfish people who are utterly unsympathetic and two of the most destructive and toxic in Nolan’s career. They’re each other’s reflection, and also in ways of Nolan himself and all artists really who strive to perfect their art. There is a very real danger of pushing those you love and care about out of your life if all you’re committed to is your work. This is where the tragedy lies, as this is a deeply sad film rooted in some of the darkest human emotions such as anger, jealousy and paranoia. In trying to gain everything they lose everything, and as in all great tragedies they realise this way too late. And it was all for the price of a good trick.
Just one more thing before we conclude this review, I want to talk about the overall shooting style of the film. After the seven month shoot of Batman Begins, with careful blocking and meticulous shots throughout, Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister wanted to loosen things up. And with a relatively low-budget film like The Prestige, you’re given a lot more freedom and so they decide to shoot most of the film handheld, with no marks or blocking pre-planned, and mostly shooting on real locations with natural light. And Nolan has since developed a beautiful mix between handheld photography and classical photography in his future films. Sure, this means you’re most likely not gonna see an extravagant seven-minute De Palma-esque oner in Nolan’s films and sometimes it can boil things down to conventional coverage, but it does strangely give the films a more vivid and breathing feeling, almost as if the film is alive, and it also frees the actors a great deal who don’t have to spend their time worrying about hitting their mark etc. Indeed too much preparation and planning can make something come off as stale. And life is anything but planned, so why should everything in cinema be? Especially since the structure is so carefully worked out and planned, you can play fast and loose with your cinematography, at least in my opinion.
The Prestige is a film that feels alive and continues to surprise and amaze you even when you know how things will turn out in the end. Like Ricky Jay’s explanation of magic tricks, it takes you from the ordinary to the extraordinary to the astounding without missing a beat. It’s one of Nolan’s very best films and one of his most satisfying.
One more thing: the casting of David Bowie as Nikola Tesla and the use of Thom Yorke’s “Analyse” over the end credits? Stroke of genius.