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The Prestige

December 11, 2015

The Prestige (2006)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Actors: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine

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Synopsis: Borden (Christian Bale) and Angier (Hugh Jackman) are two Victorian magicians engaged in evermore convoluted ruses to outdo each other. When Borden seems to have perfected the ultimate trick, ‘The Transported Man’, Angier is driven into a fit of jealousy, and concocts a plan that has far-reaching effects for both men.

Review: Amid Christopher Nolan’s impressive back-catalogue of hits – the early breakthroughs of Following and Memento, the blockbuster-defining Dark Knight trilogy, and his more recent sci-fi extravaganzas Inception and Interstellar – his seemingly more modest Victorian magician picture, The Prestige, often gets lost in the analysis, but I’d actually place it right up there with Memento as Nolan’s finest piece of work.

On paper, it must have seemed an unbelievably difficult proposition to turn into a lucid, accessible motion picture. The Victorian setting itself is unremarkable, and a lot of the story is set inside theatres, houses and gloomy workshops – hardly promising raw materials for an aspirational visionary like Nolan to work with. Then there’s the narrative itself – a to-and-fro carousel of ruse and counter-ruse, scored to one of the most complex framing structures in a film narrative I’ve seen. There are three seemingly separate time-frames: the first is Borden being framed for Angier’s murder, and waiting time out for his death penalty – he even reads Angier’s diary, which was written while… Angier is on a train to Colorado, going to find the mysterious Nikola Tesla, who Angier has been alerted to while reading Borden’s diary, and then the original chronology of the narrative which sees Borden and Angier first as young up-and-coming magicians who tentatively work together before their first enmity-defining catastrophe.

If this all sounds head-scratching, well, then in a sense it is, but ideally suiting the ever deepening ethical mire Angier and Borden find themselves in. The film is also Nolan’s most perfect commentary on his favourite auteur theme of mise en abyme, as Borden and Angier both in their own ways (Borden as the magician who takes dedication and sacrifice to its logical end-game, and Angier the magician who will be as daring and limitless as it takes to achieve artistic perfection), make near Faustian pacts for their profound, climactic ‘prestige’.

Incidentally, The Prestige was the exemplar of career-best work from three key collaborators of Nolan: his brother, Jonathan, with the Russian Doll dexterity of the screenplay; and composer David Julyan; to some of the most scintillating lighting and cinematography one could wish to see from the incomparable, Wally Pfister. (December 2015)

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