In 2006, Christopher Nolan brought us one of his most engaging films to date. ‘The Prestige’. A thriller following a back and forth rivalry between two magicians. A rivalry that at first begins as a friendly competition of one-upmanship, but later implodes into deceit, sabotage and murder.
The film, with its Victorian setting, stars Christian Bale as Alfred Borden, a young magician with a cheeky chappy persona that embraces the art of illusion and desires to fully mastering it. His counterpart, Robert Angier – played by Hugh Jackman, is a far more aristocratic, refined showman who rather goes by the book and often questions Borden’s ideas and methods. Michael Caine, a Nolan mainstay, portrays Cutter – inventor of the illusions and tricks, is also a mentor almost for the two aspiring illusionists. As with Nolan’s breakout movie, Memento, The Prestige is presented through a series of flashbacks after we open to see Borden stand trial for the murder of Angier. Chronicling the characters from their initial duties as stage ringers for another magician, leading to a tragic accident and progressing through flashbacks from the points of view of both Angier and Borden.
As the film progresses, the two leads are at constant odds, one concealing a secret behind the greatest trick he has ever performed whilst keeping his rival at arm’s length, and the other desperately and obsessively scavenging for the key to unlocking the great mystery. Bale and Jackman are on perfect pitch with their respective characters – with the X-Men stalwart breaking out of his almost typecast mould and delivering a very convincing, thorough performance. He exudes Angier’s frustration with a realism I was always adamant we would never see on-screen. But he truly delivers an encompassing character performance. Christian Bale completely nails it once again, showing he is one of Britain’s most treasured exports. Borden’s charismatic defiance against Angier, his overly strained relationships with his wife (Rebecca Hall) and mistress/assistant (Scarlett Johansson) – in conjunction with his devotion to magic are the stand-out aspects of the entire movie. Another particular favourite sequence is at the film’s climax – where we finally find out Borden’s secret. That is of course if you haven’t already guessed.
The direction, scene setting and imagery adopts some gothic overtones that allude to the darker themes of the story, such as Angier’s lifelong obsession with Borden’s secret. Additionally, sequences involving David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, and Andy Serkis as his assistant Alley, also depart from the central themes and promote a looming sense of discomfort with the viewer. It’s a subtle, but welcome shift.
The support is adequate, at best good from certain individuals. Though with relatively small screen time, I was very impressed with Rebecca Hall as Sarah Borden – who demonstrates some real potential prowess. Michael Caine is suitably class as ever, bridging comfortably as the voice of reason between the leads. Though we never know fully if he has an allegiance with either, or his own trick up his sleeve. There are some clunky efforts – notably from Scarlett Johansson and Andy Serkis, but it’s not enough to seriously tarnish. Johansson seems to have her head in the clouds during most of her dialogue while gawping like a schoolgirl in front of Christian Bale. And Serkis (complete with generic American accent), with his kind of Igor-ish role opposite a silly appearance from music icon David Bowie, is more wasted than anything based on the character itself rather than his ability.
As previously stated, Nolan applies a similar narrative to The Prestige as he did with Memento – but there’s a striking difference. This film IS Nolan’s greatest performance, it’s his masterful illusion. As Michael Caine’s closing lines say – referring to the details of a magic trick – “Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called the pledge, the magician shows you something ordinary. The second act is called the turn, the magician takes the ordinary something and makes it into something extraordinary. But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back…”
And that is The Prestige in a nutshell.
Cliches and metaphors aside. This is perhaps one of Nolan’s most ambitious pieces of work – but pays off and then some. It’s an ingenious, original, engrossing thriller that will most certainly stand tall against all comers.