How do you wind down after making film history and inventing a completely new strand of cinema? Oh, you go and make another, albeit smaller, masterpiece of course. Based on the novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige is a master class in intelligent low key, high concept filmmaking. Back on familiar ground, Nolan explores themes of relative truth, betrayal, noir storytelling and female disadvantage. By this point, most feminists would be in a rage about Nolan’s depiction of women, but The Prestige is a fine example of just why many of his protagonists share a weakness for the love of a lady – because the men cannot function without them.
Much like Leonard from Memento, Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier is driven by the support and input of his beloved partner Julia. When Julia dies in a magic trick gone wrong, Robert doesn’t blame the profession; he blames his reckless and ambitious friend Alfred Borden. It is this drive for revenge that sends Robert way off course. In the meantime, Alfred has the love and support of his wife Sarah, but fails to acknowledge this; thus making him the ‘villain’ of the film.
Many comparisons could be drawn between magic and filmmaking. The use of distraction to create surprise, the withholding of detail to conjure awe, the harnessing of the mundane to depict the extraordinary; it is easy to see why Nolan is so clearly enamored with the source material. Yet despite this, there are no showy action sequences, just simple marvels of illusion, it’s an almost inverted version of Batman Begins. Instead of going bigger, bolder, louder, Nolan takes his speaker system and turns in right down from 11 to 1, another example of the defiant genius that this filmmaker possesses.
There are of course strands that link each of Nolan’s films. If one were to draw connectives between his films to this point, they might say that treachery draws Following to Memento, guilt unites Memento and Insomnia, fear links Insomnia to Batman Begins, and theatricality bridges Batman Begins with The Prestige. Theatricality is a key theme of The Prestige, but it sits adjacent to that age old Nolan favorite – human drama.
Stand Out Moment:
After getting wind of a breathtaking new trick being exhibited by Alfred Borden, Robert sneaks out in disguise to witness the event for himself. Cutting back and fourth between the show and Robert’s inability to describe the episode to his assistant Olivia, we slowly get the feeling that something miraculous has happened. Alfred builds up to the event slowly, giving a lifeless matter-of-fact rings trick, a bouncing ball and throwing it into the audience; but yet we know from the juxtaposition of shock from Robert that something special took place. The moment builds and builds, Alfred reveals two doors at the back of the stage; he bounces the ball and enters a door. Cue Robert; “it’s the greatest magic trick I’ve ever seen”. We cut to see the response of audience members, they are gob smacked; for once, the characters know something that the film viewer doesn’t.
This scene is a slight parallel to what Nolan achieved with the infamous shipyard scene from Batman Begins. Because we see the scene from a certain perspective, we experience it in a way that is unconventional. Despite Robert’s memory clearly providing the commentary, the overall experience is from Alfred’s point of view. This is one reason why we do not get to see the trick until later in the film, as Alfred wouldn’t see what has happened, but rather the response of the audience.
Another, slightly sneakier, reason for this scene is that Nolan wants to inspire curiosity in his audience; he constructs the film in the same manner as a magic trick. Act one ‘the pledge’, act two ‘the turn’, act three ‘the prestige’. This moment is, of course, ‘the turn’; “The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.” By the time we see the look on Michael Caine’s face at the culmination of the trick, we are ready, ready to be pushed deeper into this plot. Nolan has us by the short and curlys, because he knows we want to see what happens when he gives the big final reveal.
Nolan on The Prestige:
“It was quite challenging to find the right structure and it took a lot of time. We really spent years working on the script. It required interlocking framing devices and interlocking voiceovers, combined with the notion of structuring using the three act structure of the trick. It took a long time, the key being the need to express multiple points of view purposefully and clearly. It was a difficult script to write.”
Nolan is red-green colour blind, so it’s a good thing his films usually have a brown or blue tint.
Tomorrow – THE DARK KNIGHT