Film #10 on the 100 Movies Bucket List: The Prestige
The Prestige is one of 3 Christopher Nolan films on this bucket list (the others being Memento and The Dark Knight), and probably the one that has least recognition out of the three. In fact, I’d say it’s criminally underrated. It focuses on two rival magicians in Victorian London, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), as a tragic accident gives rise to a bitter escalating feud. Supporting are Michael Caine as stage magic designer and engineer Cutter, Scarlett Johansson as magician’s assistant Olivia, Rebecca Hall as Borden’s wife Sarah and a brief appearance from Andy Serkis and the great David Bowie as Nikola Tesla and his assistant.
From the very start, The Prestige asks us the age-old magician’s phrase “Are you watching closely?” and is very much a hint at events to come, warning us that we should be paying attention. And with this being a Christopher Nolan film, this shouldn’t be a surprise. The Prestige starts at the end, with an intriguing image of dozens of discarded top hats explaining magic tricks and the meaning behind the film’s title, and is followed by the death of one of the main characters and subsequent incarceration of another. It continues in typical Nolan style, jumping between the prison, Angier’s journey to visit Nikola Tesla and telling the story of both magicians and their feud from the very beginning. A tad confusing at times, but it wouldn’t be a Nolan film without some time travelling storytelling.
Magic isn’t probably something that appeals as much now as it did back when this film is set. Victorian London is a perfect setting at a time when magic was very much a fascination and a popular form of entertainment, and the costumes and set design for this period are very well done and in keeping with the dark and dreary setting. Yet strangely, despite this, The Prestige never feels like a run of the mill period drama. The cast too are perfect for their roles and also help to make magic a lot more appealing. Christian Bale’s cockney Borden is exactly what you’d expect from him, yet I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the role, especially with such an awkward verging on unlikeable character, and it’s refreshing to see Hugh Jackman play a part where he isn’t a completely nice or likeable person. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Christopher Nolan film without Michael Caine, who brings some much-needed humour and exposition. The only drag is, unfortunately, Scarlett Johansson, whose dodgy English accent pulls us away from anything she puts into her performance.
The Prestige is a slow burn murder mystery, that almost feels like a gothic horror at times with some sci-fi aspects thrown in. The plot has a vast amount of twists and turns and you really do have to be watching closely to understand it all and the ending itself and the final twist is probably the most polarising of them all. For me, the first time I watched this I never saw the twist coming. It truly shocked me, despite the many nods the film gives to the twist throughout. Watching it back now years later, I have to admit that the twist is actually a little predictable when you really think about it. But the feeling of astonishment I had watching this for the first time was second to none. What is most strange though, is that the most confusing thing in this entire film isn’t the twists and turns, it’s the fact that both Angier and Norden can dress up in ridiculously fake disguises to fool each other and ruin the tricks. This does spoil things a little.
I’ve always loved magic and grew up watching many magic shows on TV when I was younger. For me, Nolan has brought back that love and appeal of magic, with a hugely entertaining and captivating story. It may not be perfect and the ending may lose some of its shine after the first watch, but it’s still another brilliant film from Christopher Nolan.
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