A decade ago, I accidentally bought a ticket to the wrong movie.
I wanted to go see The Illusionist, a movie about a magician in Vienna at the turn of the century who uses his theatrical powers to make a woman of a much higher social standing fall in love with him. It starred Edward Norton at a time when Edward Norton reigned supreme, and it had all the tellings of a classic romantic tale, but with magic. Instead, I bought a ticket to go see The Prestige, a movie by Christopher Nolan who had become somewhat of a hot ticket following the success of Memento in 2000 and Batman Begins in 2005.
I remember complaining about the fact that there were two movies released within a month of each other about illusionists, set in similar time periods, and cursing myself for not looking up which one was which before buying tickets. But I was already sitting down, the movie had been rolling for a couple of minutes and I was too engrossed in the popcorn sitting on my lap to go and get a refund.
Turns out my laziness was the best thing that could have happened to me because that day I watched one of my all time favorite movies and the best film Nolan has ever directed.
The Prestige, like Inception, is full of mind-playing tricks
The Prestige doesn’t just act as a perfect introduction to Nolan as a filmmaker, but carries some of the themes that are present throughout his entire body of work. Sacrifice, ambition, emotional consequence, metaphorical trips to the underworld and keen observations about human relationships are all apparent in The Prestige. Those are themes that Nolan would return to in blockbusters like The Dark Knight, Interstellar and Inception, but there’s a softness to The Prestige that the other films don’t capture quite as well; a moment of experiential discovery that comes across as almost an unsure humbleness that existed before Nolan became the revered director he is today.
Based on Christopher Priest’s book of the same name, The Prestige follows two competing illusionists, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), who will stop at nothing to best the other and make themselves known as the best stage magician of all time. Each suffer life-changing injuries in their relentless quest to beat the other person, but their professional competitive nature turns into a relentless, vindictive quest for revenge when one of the men loses his wife in an accident on stage, turning his life upside down and leaving him bitter.
The Prestige, like Inception, is full of mind-playing tricks and its easy to see what attracted Nolan to the film in the first place: there are a series of twists and turns that the director likes to include in many of his films. Look at Memento and Inception, for example. Each build upon the previous shock, building up the film until its climactic moment and then leaving the audience with a few unanswered questions. Nolan may have played around with the formula during Memento, but it was in The Prestige that we see the director understand how to deepen a story by using little tricks on screen. He threads the film together using different key moments, jumping from one to the next.
It’s not the only thing he learned how to do well in The Prestige, either. One of Nolan’s telltale filmmaking techniques is the use of flashbacks to tell a story that doesn’t necessarily follow a chronological timeline. He did it in The Dark Knight Rises, he did it in Interstellar and, obviously, he did it in Memento. Not only are flashbacks crucial to the unveiling of big twists in The Prestige, but Nolan uses them as a way to hammer home the emotional consequences of people’s actions. Nolan spends a lot of time in The Prestige learning how to get the audience to care about characters that are self-serving and reckless by using flashbacks to illustrate their vulnerabilities or good-hearted moments. As a director, Nolan is obsessed with exploring people’s relationships with one another and finding out how they respond when placed in the worst situations.
Nolan likes to explore the philosophical aspects of life and the psychological elements of the human condition, and that’s best showcased in The Prestige. We follow Angier and Borden as they go from being the best possible versions of themselves to the worst, but Nolan never just tortures his characters for no apparent reason. He’s already invested too much time in Angier and Borden’s personal lives, and it makes their downfall all the more tragic. His approach to filmmaking is akin to Shakespeare’s approach to writing a tragedy and the time they spend building up the importance of these characters is the only reason we care about their downfall — and hopeful redemption — in the end.
The Prestige also brings together an incredible cast, with actors that Nolan works with time and time again. Jackman, Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlet Johansson and Rebecca Hall are all magnificent performers who bring the haunting but mystifying story to life.
Not to mention that having David Bowie is magical in its own right, in the role of scientist Nikola Tesla as the design system for modern electricity was being constructed.
It’s thanks to the acting on Jackman and Bale’s part that Nolan’s story about the dangers of obsession thrives as well as it does, but it's because of the supporting cast that we care about their downward spiral into downright mania in the first place. Nolan uses the strengths of everyone in his cast to nail the biting and tragic story of Priest’s novel in a way that few other directors would be able to pull off.
The Prestige isn’t Nolan’s biggest movie and it’s certainly not his most beloved — The Dark Knight will forever remain the film he’s most remembered for and for good reason. Looking back at The Prestige 10 years later, however, reminds me that there was a youthfulness to Nolan that seems to have disappeared. There was a curious storyteller who wanted to make his mark on cinema and The Prestige encompasses all of Nolan’s best abilities. It combines his passion for characters and complex stories with a strong knowledge of technology that creates rich worlds you desperately want to be a part of.
The Prestige isn’t just Nolan’s best movie, but it’s absolutely his most essential.