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91. EMPIRE MAGAZINE GREATEST: The Prestige

February 1, 2018

Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis, David Bowie, Piper Perabo,
Runtime: 130 Minutes

 

Original UK Release: 2006

 

★★★★☆

 

Coming right off the back of rebooting the Batman series with what many would describe as one of the greatest comic-book blockbusters off all time, The Prestige sees writer/director Christopher Nolan return to a relatively smaller scale of filmmaking for an intimate, dark, profoundly intelligent mystery thriller. Although working as an apt adaptation of Christopher Priest's 1995 novel of the same name, and considerably less expensive than his previous work, there’s a forbidding sense of cataclysmic emotional distress and beauty to this feature that fills in the scope of a volatile rivalry between two stage magicians at the turn of the century.

 

Its story follows Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), rival stage magicians in London at the end of the 19th century. Obsessed with creating the best stage illusion, they engage in competitive one-upmanship with tragic results.

 

Nolan is a wizard when it comes to structure when it comes to laying out his stories in both visual and narrative terms through editing and cross-cutting of events, but never too much as to confuse, instead misdirecting the audience with sleight of hand for moments of clarity and catharsis later. Setting out its structural foundations from the start, we see Michael Caine’s stage engineer, John Cutter, explain the construction of a magician’s trick before a young girl; The Pledge (here’s a bird), The Turn (the bird is gone) and The Prestige (the bird has returned).

 

From this moment on the structure of the film lays itself in a similar fashion that dares you to watch closely as it’s cunningly clever direction moves around the pieces behind the scenes for the Prestige reveal in the film’s final act. The amount of faith he places in the audience to basically trust in his abilities to draw them through the labyrinth that is the film’s narrative, even without a dependency to guide, is phenomenal.

 

The world building and the way Nolan and DP Wally Pfister portray its Victorian setting is quite unexpected. Mostly handheld, deeply intimate with natural interior lighting to its chilling backstage locations and crumbling apartments contrast with the extravagance of the stage performances but never lose that sense of grounded realism, even as the spectacular tricks of mechanics and illusions are both explained and presented to both audiences on screen and those watching the film.

 

But this isn’t the intended focus, what is and always has been most important to Nolan is the dedication to the characters and their internal lives boiling over as the competitiveness turns gradually to betrayal and bloodshed. Jackman shows range as the showman driven to near insanity by his desire to overthrow Borden’s own spectacular trick (one that shall not be spoiled as the reveal is quite remarkably underplayed). He’s brash, determined and ultimately dangerous, resorting to technology to try and solve his dilemma with the hand of Nikola Tesla, with an oddly compelling performance from David Bowie.

 

Bale is equally compelling as the significantly more talented but reserved prodigy, but the secrets he holds so tightly on too are the very things driving him apart from his relationship with his wife Sarah, played by Rebecca Hall, and child. Both men come across in many ways and unlikable sociopaths whose determination to better one another in more elaborate performances make them a danger to everyone around them.

 

Told through an ingenious and complex structure of the present working back through both of their stolen diaries to fill in the backstories, a theme that Nolan has worked with before once again emerges as these two figures of vaulted professionalism are brought down by emotional engagement to the women in their lives.

 

If there is a stumbling block, then it might come down to Nolan’s faint disinterest in the female characters. Though Rebecca Hall does excellent work as a maligned housewife, she only occasionally enters to feel the ire of Borden’s increasing wrath and eclectic way of showing his love. There’s also Scarlett Johansson in a well performed but thankless role as Angier’s assistant and lover, Olivia Wenscombe, who finds herself torn between the two men in a slightly less convincing fashion.

 

For all criticism regarding inconstancy, though, Nolan pays everything off by the films ending with a jaw-dropping series of revelations that come one after the other, with the ramifications of their actions only making complete sense by the time the credits roll.

 

The Prestige is a magic trick in and of itself, as established from its opening and following through to its closing moments, Nolan’s methods of inventive structural intricacy, brilliant characterisation and visual invention and editing give this period film the pace of an exciting action-adventure, but maintains its intimacy with dedicated performances and an all-encompassing mood and aesthetic.

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