Duelling Dualities – Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige

For his fifth film Christopher Nolan turned his attention to a Christopher Priest novel, The Prestige, a blend of science-fiction and Victoriana very much in the vein of the author’s great influence, H.G. Wells. Ever one to turn to an existing source for material (its worth noting that 2010’s Inception was only the directors second self-penned tale), Nolan shifted from superpowers to the supernatural in the wake of 2005’s Batman Begins with a tale weaved together from a pair of unreliable narrators that riffs heavily on themes of duality and subterfuge.

In the opening bars of the film the three-part form of a magic trick is explained. First, we are told, is the Pledge, in which the facing premise of the trick is presented to the viewer. This is followed by the Turn, which sees the relatively ordinary premise of the Pledge turned inside out, and made extraordinary. The Prestige is the third act of the magic trick. This is where the whole thing comes together, the reveal if you will. Now, it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination for one to realise that the narrative arc of a magic trick is very similar to that of a conventional movie, and in that respect Nolan’s film itself is something of an attempt at the dramatic recreation of a conjurers trick. The cinema itself is inherently connected to the stage shows and theatrics of the magic show, the early picture houses sat on the very same boulevards as the final generation of the gentleman magician. This is Nolan’s first and still to-date only period film, albeit one shot thru the lens of Wally Pfister, where the camera rarely sits still and close-ups dominate, a necessary combination to portray a film that deals heavily with detail and the slight of hand. The film merges history with fiction well, with the balance lending to an eerie feeling of confusion within the viewer, at times unable to differentiate reality with science fiction. That one of the cinemas great on-screen aliens portrays Nikola Tesla is a nice touch too.

One can’t help but feel that there is a dry commentary on the state of the contemporary American cinema of 2006 inside of The Prestige, with it’s treaty of a poor showman who controls an amazing content of illusion drawing obvious illusions to how it is the bland that hold the greatest power in the movies within Hollywood.  Somewhat ironically it’s the complex plotting of the piece that almost undoes this reading, given that the focus is constantly shifting and redefining what has fallen before on an episodic basis. It serves as a reminder for just how structurally out of shape the vast majority of Nolan’s work is, with The Dark Knight the only film within the directors oeuvre that actually carries a traditional narrative flow (while structurally straightforward, Insomnia shifts time in a different manner entirely). Appropriately, and perhaps in an answer to the criticisms levelled at him in the wake of Batman Begins, it is the third act of The Prestige, the eponymously named section itself where the film really comes in to its own. As all is pulled together tightly, the most satisfying last act of the directors career drives the film towards it’s closing titles.  

It’s appropriate that this films own “prestige” is pretty much the most daring of Nolan’s career. Often written off as a small film made between Bat-flicks (as too was Inception said to be early on during it’s production), The Prestige is a work as deeply satisfying as anything else within the directors body of work, it’s Vertigo-riffing modulating on dualities placing the work firmly alongside the remaining works in the sibling/sibling? rivalry canonical likes of Dead Ringers, Adaptation and Chinatown



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  1. Ok, I’ll admit. I’ve never seen this! Terrible I know.

  2. Great article Adam. an excellent film which is self aware enough to challenge the audience to follow the narrative and not fall for its tricks. The great thing about this film is that there are several twists and that each one hides the next. an immensely enjoyable and rewatchable film. Please tell me you’re covering the masterpiece “Memento”

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