Revisiting Christopher Nolan's Most Underrated Film, 'The Prestige'

Ryan Phillips
Christian Bale in "The Prestige"
Christian Bale in "The Prestige"
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Christopher Nolan has firmly established himself as one of the great film directors of our time. He has been rightly lauded for his work on movies like Insomnia, Memento, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk. With his latest film Tenet set to hit theaters in a few weeks, I figured it was the perfect time to look back on Nolan's most underrated picture, The Prestige.

Released in 2006, The Prestige tells the story of two rival magicians in Victorian London. Starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, the film is a psychological thriller about the lengths to which some men will go in search of glory, or a personal vendetta. Full of twists and turns, the film does not end up where you think it will and the viewer is better for it. It is truly a fascinating tale.

After Batman Begins, Nolan took his customary break from the caped crusader to explore another genre. He did the same thing during a break between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, as he made Inception before returning to complete his Batman trilogy. The Prestige is not a big-budget thriller in the mold of Inception, as Nolan had yet to be widely accepted as a genius. After the success of The Dark Knight, he was pretty much allowed to write his own ticket, but in 2006 the jury was still out on him. As a result, The Prestige had a modest budget of $40 million and opened in October, which isn't exactly blockbuster season.

On arrival, the film received good reviews and scored wins at the box office, generating $109.7 million, making it a moderate success. But for some reason, it gets lost in the shuffle of Nolan's movies. It's truly a brilliant film, filled with excellent performances and a lights-out script adapted from Christopher Priest's novel of the same name.

Jackman plays Robert Angier, a talented performer who lacks the skill and creativity to develop his own illusions. Bale plays Alfred Borden, a brilliant magician who isn't much of a showman. We follow them into the world they create as it becomes dangerous and wreaks havoc on their lives.

Bale and Jackman constantly challenge each other on screen, as they chew their way through scenery. They play two very different men who are united by the same obsession. Caine provides the moral center of it all -- as he often does in Nolan's films. Hall and Johansson turn in excellent performances as the women tortured by their relationships with men fiendishly obsessed with outdoing one-another and achieving greatness. There is also a wonderful, short performance from David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, aided by Andy Serkis who plays Tesla's faithful assistant.

The performances are bolstered by a script -- written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan -- that keeps the viewer guessing. Since magicians rely on illusions and tricks, there has to be an easy explanation for everything, right? Sometimes there is and sometimes there isn't. And that's the beauty of this film. There are so many twists and turns it's hard to know what will come next. Things that seem so strange wind up making complete sense at the end. Frankly, after all is revealed, the film deserves a second watch to find all the signposts along the way that telegraphed the stunning finale.

Once The Prestige ends, you'll be searching for someone to discuss it with. In preparation for writing this, my girlfriend and I watched it, and after the credits rolled we wound up talking about it for 30-plus minutes. Having seen it before, I reveled in the subtle brilliance of the script as it repeatedly gives away the multiple, major plot twists in such a way that a first time viewer will never see them coming.

I won't spoil anything for you, but it's safe to say you'll enjoy the ride and the conclusion.

The film is beautifully shot and the score serves to heighten the tension at every turn, but that's to be expected from any Nolan effort. It was nominated for two Academy Awards -- Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction -- but could have earned others. Hall's performance as Borden's tortured wife stands out. It put her on the map and presaged her roles in films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon and The Town.

The Prestige has held up well as it has aged. It's a film more than worth revisiting, or viewing for the first time. It's an incredible examination of two men obsessed with greatness and locked in an dangerous duel. Bale and Jackman are brilliant, as are all the peripheral players. It's a film that belongs alongside the best from Nolan's career. It is long past time it is given the respect it so richly deserves.

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