The Prestige

It was disappointing not to see the new James Bond film in cinemas this April as planned but I’m not too bothered by having to wait. Imagine if the cinema closures had struck this time last year though or at Christmas, when I was counting down the days to Endgame or The Rise of Skywalker, then I’d have found it much more of an issue.

Fortunately the movie I’m looking forward to with almost the same level of geeky impatience this year has not yet been delayed, in fact they are hoping it will be the one to bring audiences back when cinemas reopen next month. I’m talking of course of Christopher Nolan’s new film Tenet. I adore Nolan’s movies and the prospect of seeing a new work from the director behind The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception and Dunkirk carries with it Avengers and Star Wars levels of anticipation.

So, as I wait nervously to see if the July 17th release date is kept what else can I do but revisit one of his previous films that I’ve not seen as much as those others mentioned?

I don’t know why I’ve not regularly returned to The Prestige (I think this was my third viewing) because it is quite brilliant, better in fact than his Batman movies. Like all of Nolan’s films the story is intricate, the tension is expertly built, the characterisation is understated yet utterly compelling and the tools of cinematic storytelling are deftly controlled but here he somehow goes a step further. The Prestige isn’t just about magic tricks, it is a magic trick.

In case you don’t know, (and while not openly discussing spoilers I will after this point largely assume that you do know) the film tells the story of two rival magicians in Victorian times who compete across a series of years to stage the greatest trick the world has ever seen. The title refers to the three elements of an illusion; the pledge where the ordinary item at the centre of the trick is introduced, the turn where something extraordinary happens and the prestige where the final reveal creates the great sense of wonder that everything has been building up to. Essentially it’s 1. pick a card and show it to the audience, 2. card bursts into flames, 3. card turns up in the pocket of the lady sitting in row G. It’s all about misdirection and secrets hidden in plain site leading up to an audacious finale and that’s exactly what the film does too.

This won’t be news to you if you’ve seen the film before but what you don’t get the first time is how it’s done. Remarkably the big ending is signposted all the way through but Nolan has made you miss it because you are looking somewhere else. This isn’t just a film you should watch more than once, it is a film that you have to watch more than once. It isn’t just that it has more treats on a repeat viewing, it has totally different treats on a repeat viewing. Once you know the twist about Christian Bale’s character it isn’t a twist at all; it has been openly stated numerous times but you couldn’t see what was right in front of you.

The way he does this is chiefly through Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier who is so convinced that Bale’s Alfred Borden has a big secret that the audience is looking for this too. The secret is that he doesn’t have a big secret which isn’t really a secret at all. You might even have seen it coming but this only provides a different kind of satisfaction first time and takes nothing away the second.

Also significant is that Angier, in his attempt to copy Borden’s greatest trick without knowing this non-secret secret, has an astonishing secret of his own and his is so spectacular that you think Borden’s must be more so. It doesn’t matter that it ultimately isn’t though because actually it is impressive for an entirely different and actually more moving reason. It isn’t the trick you thought but film making has a range of tricks and Nolan knows them all and when to play them.

Crucially, while it asks its audience to suspend disbelief (exactly as all magic tricks do), The Prestige doesn’t cheat. Like a magician Nolan has an symbiotic relationship with his audience and respects us too much for that. Unlike the Now You See Me films, there is nothing here that doesn’t work within its own conceits and nothing is left unexplained.

The Prestige, arguably more than any of Christopher Nolan’s other films, really demonstrates what a precise and considered movie director he is.

You know what? This hasn’t helped at all. Now I’m even more desperate for Tenet to come out as planned. I really want to see what this guy has up his sleeve next.

The magician at work

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