“Are You Watching Closely?” Digging Deep into Christopher Nolan’s Best Film

Note: This movie is over a decade old. I’m not screwing around with spoilers, folks.

With each successive film, it becomes clearer that The Prestige will remain Christopher Nolan’s definitive statement on the cinematic form. While other films may pack in more spectacle, or twist and turn with even more carefully constructed plot turns, The Prestige finds a modern auteur distilled to his essence, flaws and all, and laid bare.

The Prestige, adapted from a Christopher Priest novel by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, unfolds in multiple parallel timestreams that fold and collapse into one another as the film progresses. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is a popular magician in 1890s London, awaiting the gallows for the murder of his rival, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). While he waits for the end, Borden is given the dead man’s diary, detailing his travels to America to construct his greatest trick ever. And while Angier waits for his illusion to be crafted, he reads Borden’s diary, which lays out the whole stinking beginning of the rivalry that comes to consume both men.

Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, and Piper Perabo line the edges of the story as the women who haunt the men, fuel their rivalry, and pay a dear cost for having become involved. And on the other side of the aisle you have Michael Caine, Andy Serkis, and David Goddamn Bowie as figures that make the competition more…interesting, shall we say.

Technically, The Prestige represents the peak of what Nolan’s craft was capable of in 2006. He still didn’t know how to shoot or cut action yet, and so The Prestige is mercifully free of the awkward attempts at injected excitement that sank portions of Batman Begins only the year before. Working with Wally Pfister as cinematographer, Nolan built a period piece that suffered from none of the stuffed-shirted quality that makes films set in this time period such a chore to get through sometimes *coughcoughgangsofnewyorkcoughcough*. There’s a looseness and immediacy to the construction of The Prestige, emphasized by the use of handheld cameras and close-ups, that Nolan would lose once he threw himself wholeheartedly into giant-sized epics shot on giant-sized cameras for giant-sized screens. Movies like Interstellar and Inception require surgical precision in the composition of each and every shot, and it leaves the raw, intimate Prestige feeling like an even bigger outlier in Nolan’s filmography.

No, in this case, the surgical precision was reserved for the script. Christopher Nolan built his career and reputation on intricately plotted, time-fractured psychological thrillers, but for all their narrative density, Nolan’s films before and after The Prestige fit well into designated genre boxes. The superheroics of his Dark Knight trilogy; the murder mysteries of Following, Memento and Insomnia; the heist hijinks of Inception; and the men(and Anne Hathaway)-on-a-mission format of Interstellar; they all see Nolan using/subverting well-established narrative forms. The convoluted nature in which he told the stories was reflective of the how the characters subjectively experienced those stories, whether you’re talking about the short-term memory loss suffered by Guy Pearce in Memento, the sleep deprivation of Al Pacino in Insomnia, or Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey becoming unstuck in time and space in their drives to reunite with their children.

But with The Prestige, we’re not experiencing a subjective perspective on a narrative. The narrative itself is subjective. The Prestige is a revenge film in which who is seeking revenge on whom is entirely up-for-grabs, a murder-mystery in which maybe no murder was actually committed, and a puzzle that resolutely refuses to reveal itself no matter how much you shift the pieces around.

The central figures in Memento and Insomnia were unwillingly unreliable narrators, men who had become lost in their own minds and couldn’t find their way out. But with The Prestige, both of the narrators are willfully mis-representing their pasts as part of their long-running illusions and revenge ploys. Both the diaries that form the narrative are revealed to be fraudulent, dupes created to throw off and confound the readers. Everything that Angier reads about “Alfred Borden”’s history and mental state is a lie, as the climax reveals that there is no “Alfred Borden” but instead a pair of twins who took turns living a single life to pull of their grand illusion.

Just as fraudulent is Angier’s trip to America, where he meets Nikola Tesla (Bowie, playing up his “confounded/confounding alien” charisma to the absolute hilt), who inadvertently creates a cloning machine which Angier then uses as the centerpiece of his grand final trick/masterstroke in his revenge ploy.

Or…does he? Because the only ‘proof’ we have of the Tesla incident is Angier’s diary which, again, has been doctored by the ‘dead’ man as a final taunt while Borden awaits execution. There’s a big machine that lights up and shoots sparks, but the only actual dead ‘clone’ that we see is in the final shot of the film, where the camera lingers over a corpse that looks like Hugh Jackman floating in a tank while Michael Caine’s voiceover remarks, “You want to be fooled.”

The easiest and most likely explanation is indeed that The Prestige is a stealth sci-fi story and the accidental clones are intended to be taken at face value. But it cannot be an accident that the Brothers Nolan introduce this room for doubt, that they couch the sci-fi element of the film behind layers of obfuscation and trickery. The novel (which I have not read) contains no such ambiguity. There’s just, you know, fucking clones running around turn-of-the-century England.

(Sidenote: I read the Wikipedia plot summary for this book while prepping this article and it sounds WEIRD. When I mentioned it on Twitter, I got big range of reactions, from people saying the book far out-stripped the movie, while others argued the movie improved on the novel tremendously.)

Other changes made by Nolan to bring the story into line with his other films, before and after, are more problematic. It’s become a running joke among film fans that Christopher Nolan’s first step whenever he adapts a story is to kill the main character’s wife, and The Prestige goes ahead and serves up not one, but two dead wives to torment the tortured men at the heart of his story. And while she survives the proceedings, Scarlett Johansson is lost in an underwritten role. In the years since The Prestige, Johansson has emerged as a genuine movie star, someone who can communicate pages of dialogue with just a smirk. You’d never know that from The Prestige, in which she’s little more than an empty vessel for fetching costumes and concerned looks as the tormented tortured men torture themselves with inner torment.

But it’s the film’s obsession with the twin notions of deception and creation that mark The Prestige as the most Christopher Nolan of all Christopher Nolan’s films. Each of Nolan’s films follow a general emotional arc: an obsessed man seeks to right a wrong, makes some terrible mistakes, and tries to craft a narrative around their life that will absolve them of their guilt, only to become lost. Leonard in Memento gave himself a mystery that could never be solved. Cobb in Inception builds endless labyrinths in dreams, and Detective Al Pacino in Insomnia (he probably has a character name but come on, Al Pacino has been playing “Al Pacino” for a while now [though Insomnia probably represents the last gasp for ‘I give a shit about my work’ Al Pacino before the easy paychecks of the likes of 88 Minutes and Jack and fucking Jill lured him away]) is known for re-arranging evidence to suit the case he wishes to build.

With The Prestige, our two “heroes” are literally writing the story as we watch it, presenting versions of themselves in which they are by turns a tormented genius misunderstood in his time, and an anguished, wronged man who deserves bloody vengeance.

They’re both wrong, or they’re both right, or they’re both so lost in the morass that comes with living your life in an illusion.

“You two deserve each other,” Johansson sneers in one climatic moment, and it’s telling that no one argues with her in that scene. Christopher Nolan, one of the most notoriously obsessive and controlling directors working in modern mainstream cinema, made a movie about the endgame of obsession and a need for control, and all he found was fire, blood, and grief.

Or is that all there is? Angier dies unrepentant, lashing out at “Borden” for never “understanding why we did this.”

Perhaps the darkest, most troubling piece of The Prestige’s identity, and the aspect that marks it as Nolan’s ultimate manifesto, is the notion that all the suffering, sorrow, and loss that goes into a trick, into a story – maybe it was all worth it. Maybe grief and horror are the necessary ingredients to conjure awe, and for a certain kind of man, that price is worth paying if it means you get to fool an audience even if “only for a moment.”

Throughout his career, Christopher Nolan has strived to create such moments, and to make them last as long as possible, whether it’s dazzling the audience with massive, practical action sequences, or ensorcelling them with fragmented narratives and gasp-inducing twists and turns.

He’s like a magician who can’t help return to the stage again and again, searching for the trick that’s going to really wow them, really fool them. No matter how closely we watch.

Get it at Amazon


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