After tackling The Dark Knight, Nolan was ready to get a whole load darker with his 19th century tale of opposing magicians. Starting with an ominous shot of a deluge of top hats scattered across a forest setting, The Prestige immediately feels like that perfect meeting point of both the narrative experience of his earlier films like Memento with the largest sense of scale that he acquired in his work with Batman Begins.
That duality is incredibly important here as it is comparable to its narrative. On its base level, The Prestige is about the never-ending rivalry between two magicians. It splits you down the middle between Hugh Jackman’s Angier and Christian Bale’s Borden, with an empathy for both that allows you to fall on either sides’ favour. Yet as the mysteries of its story begin to unfold you begin to see the central themes of obsession, dedication and the price these men pay for their craft – all of which again can relate to that duality. Living half-lives, becoming a mere clone of who you once were, and the endless cycle of one bad deed corrected by another.
The Prestige is Nolan’s most mysterious work, and keeps you entangled in its web of lies and misconception right up until its very climax. Upon reflection and repeated viewings, the tragedy and heartbreak of this film become all the heavier. Being only the second time I have seen this film, my experience likely exceeded that of the first, as little tells and innumerable hiding in plain sight answers to the mystery make you questions how you could have ever missed them in the first place.
As The Prestige delves deeper into its mystery, an interesting balancing act becomes apparent with the kind of stories that Nolan wants to tell and his directing style. Nolan has a complete affinity for grounded realities. If Batman glides through the air, what kind of cloth is he using for his cloak? In The Prestige there is an sense of that reality, which is explored through mechanical contraptions, or secret gaps for prying hands. But as it enters its latter act, we then start to travel into the realm of surrealism.
For many it may be a tad jarring, and even disappointing, but applying a level of surrealism to a world that is recognisable by its grounded nature was utterly fascinating, and really sold The Prestige for me. There is a version of this film that buckles under the weight of this cataclysmic change, but Nolan perpetuates a sense of believability that meant when a cloning device from Nicola Tesla is introduced you lean further into it, rather than pulling away.
The Prestige showed the world that Nolan was here to stay, with a film and story that felt adamantly of character. Coupled with a superb tone and directing style, Nolan’s concrete confidence towards which kind of film he wanted this to be, made sure that we as an audience experience something tragic, entertaining, enticing, and ultimately something we didn’t even know we wanted to see.