The Prestige: A Magical Psychological Thriller

(L-R) Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige. Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros.

The Prestige is a magical psychological thriller about a pair of feuding magicians with no shortage of edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Christopher Nolan reteams with a number of his usual department heads as he reunites with his Batman Begins stars Christian Bale and Michael Caine for an adaptation of Christopher Priest’s (not to be confused with the comic book writer) 1995 novel. Nolan would adapt the script with his brother, Jonathan, for a number of years before entering production in 2006. A number of new actors join a Nolan cast for what appears to be their first and only time in their careers. Interestingly, the filmmaker, per The Nolan Variations, went into the premiere with the thinking that The Prestige would be a flop and his 1941. The film did way better than its tracking upon opening and the rest is history.

The film’s start and finish play out with the same trick: Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) falling through a trapdoor and into a tank of water. Fellow magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) watches the events play out and ends up being tried for Angier’s murder. Things play out somewhat differently during the end but it factors into a rivalry between the two. This is certainly a film that plays even better after multiple viewings. When one pulls back a few layers, it feels very different from the rest of his filmography. Even though the filmmaker is taking us back to a very different period that can be repressive in nature, it’s one that is heavy on the intellectual front with so many advances. Thomas Edison’s work, for one.

The cinema allows for filmmakers to play tricks on the audience. The best tricks are the ones in which you don’t realize that there are any visual effects, of course. In any event, The Prestige allows its magicians to play tricks on its in-film audience but that’s not always the case for the film’s own audience. There are plotlines that play out through multiple timelines. Or is it one non-linear timeline? I need to watch the film again! In one of them, Borden is a free man in a relationship with Sarah (Rebecca Hall) while Angier is alive and on his way to meet Nicola Tesla (David Bowie). As if multiple timelines are not already enough to keep up with, another timeline reveals Borden being responsible for Angier’s wife dying. There are four timelines in all, which is not easy to follow on a single viewing.

Where Angier has charisma on stage, Borden is the purist. Cutter (Michael Caine) helps the magician with his tricks. The two magicians become major rivals in the process. Nolan doesn’t play favorites with either one of the as the audience soon realizes while watching. Even though one understands why Sarah decides to end her life, it’s never not going to be upsetting when she goes through with it.

Per The Director’s Notebook bonus feature, Nolan said that the Victorian era thriller is about filmmaking. Of course, watching stage magic on film is very different from watching it in real life. Anyway, there’s this fascinating relationship between magicians and scientists playing out in the film. Magicians would even inject spiritualism into their acts during the era but this was excised from the film. At the end of the day though, magic is still a practicing art. On the science side of it, one certainly cannot ignore the importance of Nicola Tesla. One of his inventions is the basis for The Teleported Man trick in the film. While his role is minor, the scientist has been the subject of a number of films and biopics in real life.

Production designer Nathan Crowley, working with set decorator Julie Ochipinti, utilizes both Universal’s backlot for exteriors and some Los Angeles theaters for interiors. The design allows for beautiful lighting and lensing from cinematographer Wally Pfister. As a viewer, you really feel like you’re right there with the actors. The production design and cinematography would both be rewarded with deserving Oscar nominations. Anyway, what amazes me is that the Nolan brothers finished writing their script in January 2006 and the film was premiering in October of that year. It’s even more astonishing when one factors in the amount of visual effects work–supervised by Stephane Ceretti–in the film.

The Prestige is a thrilling film but it requires multiple viewings to better understand the narrative.

DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan
SCREENWRITERS: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
CAST: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis, Piper Perabo, and David Bowie

Touchstone Pictures released The Prestige in theaters on October 20, 2006. Grade: 3.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.