“Are you watching closely?” immediately followed by a cut to black, silence. Perfect way to start a puzzle.
Christopher Nolan is one of the few contemporary, major directors who manipulates time so freely in his films. Nolan makes studio movies with big budgets (granted, The Prestige’s budget was smaller than most of Nolan’s other films), yet he has little convention for time, using it instead as a narrative weapon. The first two and a half minutes of The Prestige, for example, disorient us because we have no idea where we are or when we are. But it doesn’t matter. The sequence is so tightly constructed, we can’t help but be enthralled immediately. Nolan’s movies are rides, you can either chose to get on, or stand idly as it passes you by.
The Prestige cost $40 million. Batman Begins (released the year before The Prestige) was a $150 million movie, while The Dark Knight (released two years after The Prestige) cost $185 million. I love that sandwiched between two blockbusters, Warner Bros. let Nolan and Christian Bale run off and make a weird little magic movie.
I love Hans Zimmer and his collaboration with Nolan (particularly the score to Interstellar), but there’s something to be said for David Julyan’s restrained, moody strings. There is a quiet, atmospheric tension Julyan brings to Nolan’s Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige that should not be overlooked.
I talk about economy of movement a lot in these posts, and that’s because I think it’s important to highlight when an actor does something that feels so natural, it doesn’t feel like they were directed to do it. The way Cutter (Michael Caine) gently picks up an axe and checks his watch is so instantly believable. This guy does this all the time.
Gotta give it up for Ricky Jay, the great character actor and real life magician who trained Jackman and Bale in magic for the film.
The color palette to the film is incredible. Cinematographer Wally Pfister is a genius. Come back, sir!
Part of the benefit of manipulating time the way Nolan does is that it makes for such active repeat viewings of his films. Right here, Angier and his wife, Julia (Piper Perabo), are openly discussing Angier’s family and his name change. It’s all in the open. Are you watching closely?
You have to wonder, how much of what Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Fallon (Bale again) are doing is creepy manipulation? They’re impressing a young lady, Sarah (Rebecca Hall), just so Alfred can be with her. Doesn’t seem right. But I suppose that’s what the film is about: two (three?) people so obsessed with their craft that they’d kill, lie, and cheat just to be notorious.
Shots like this are how your film gets Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction.
The subtlety of Bale’s work is remarkable. The first time I saw The Prestige, I was dumbfounded by Bale’s lack of chemistry with Hall in this scene. Then you realize it’s all intentional, because this Bale isn’t the “Borden” we know. This is what makes for such active rewatches.
I want to highlight how rare it is that a modern, American studio movie was shot almost exclusively with a handheld camera. Yes, there are some brief tracking shots and still set-ups, but mostly, The Prestige was shot on a camera operator’s shoulder. Nolan does this with all his films – by now it’s a trademark of his style – but it is still rare as hell.
I know David Bowie’s performance as Nikola Tesla has been discussed a lot (for good reason, it’s so smart), but I wanted to note that his introduction is one of my favorite character introductions in contemporary film. From his own creation, man is born.
Borden’s smug look after he tells Angier’s assistant, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), how Angier does his “New Transported Man” trick. “…mute, overweight, and, unless I’m mistaken, very drunk.”
Love this dinner scene, as “Borden” here is clearly the “Fallon” who was just buried. Drunk and pissed off and alive.
Also a good time to mention that this was Rebecca Hall’s first major movie. She was 23 when they filmed it. So young, so green, yet knocking Bale out scene after scene.
Lord Caldlow (Hugh Jackman) saying, “Oh, for God’s sake,” as Borden promises his daughter that he’s going to take her home soon. Lot packed into that line, mostly, “Hey, you’re going to be dead soon (because of me). Don’t promise your daughter this stuff.”
I love Nolan for not immediately going in for a close-up of Caine when Cutter realizes who Lord Caldlow is.
I know this film has its fair share of detractors, and I get why. Perhaps the ending feels too tidy for some. It does remove a lot of the mystery (Which “Borden” loved Sarah? What sacrifices did “Angier” make?), but I think it’s deeply satisfying. Plus, as mentioned, it makes for thrilling rewatches. I get more from this movie every time I watch it. I’ll always enjoy putting the puzzle of The Prestige together.
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