Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” (2006)

Director Christopher Nolan didn’t have to search very far to find the subject material for his follow-up to BATMAN BEGINS– his fifth feature film had already been in development since MEMENTO, and would have been his fourth after INSOMNIA, had Gotham City not beckoned so urgently.  Nolan and his brother Jonathan had been working intermittently over the previous five years adapting Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel “The Prestige”, a tale about dueling magicians in London at the turn of the twentieth century.  The brothers no doubt felt an enormous amount of pressure to deliver a fitting adaptation, considering that they had been chosen by Priest directly over higher-profile filmmakers like Sam Mendes, who wished to make the picture as his own follow-up to the Oscar-winning AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999).  Nolan benefited from Priest’s preference for up-and-coming filmmakers, wowing the author off the strength of FOLLOWING alone, as MEMENTO was still in post-production at the time.  The Nolan brothers attributed the length of their writing process to the complexity of their ambitions, wishing to reshape the form of their screenplay to the thematic structure of the book in a bid to become the cinematic embodiment of the magic trade’s core principles.  Capturing these ideals proved teasingly elusive, to the extent that the brothers delivered the final shooting script only three days before the start of production.  Thankfully, their efforts didn’t go unnoticed– THE PRESTIGE has gone on to become one of Nolan’s most closely-scrutinized efforts, regarded not just as a compelling and complex dramatic thriller, but also as a revelatory expression of Nolan’s own artistic character via the philosophies that inform his craft.

THE PRESTIGE continues Nolan’s symbiotic working relationship with Warner Brothers, who co-produces with Touchstone Pictures, but it also sees him reuniting with Newmarket Films, the entity that launched his career with MEMENTO.  The story is concerned with the sustained game of one-upmanship between rival magicians– the aristocratic American, Robert Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, and the coarse, working-class Englishman, Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale.  Bale’s casting, as well as Michael Caine’s as a paternal stage engineer named Cutter, reflects how quickly THE PRESTIGE came together once BATMAN BEGINS got off the ground: both actors are able to parlay the creative momentum of their prior collaboration with Nolan into compelling performances that bring the period alive with fresh immediacy.  As the game of wits between Borden and Angier escalates, they draw their friends and family into the fray to increasingly devastating results.  Rebecca Hall fares better than her role as Borden’s increasingly put-upon wife might otherwise suggest, taking what very little she has to work with in terms of dramatic meat and chewing it vigorously.  Scarlett Johansson pulls heavily from the “femme fatale” archetype in her performance as Olivia Wenscombe, a double-crossing magician’s assistant whose allegiance is– to put it politely– fickle.  David Bowie, Andy Serkis, and Ricky Jay round out Nolan’s cast of note;  an inspired trio, considering all three are illusionists in their own right.  Jay is a magic enthusiast in real life, and helped to coach Bale and Jackman in the trade while serving in his role as a fellow magician named Milton.  Serkis is well-known for his innovations with motion capture performance, using digital effects to transcend what the human body can physically do, or transform it into something else entirely.  However, he gets no such opportunity to practice that trade in THE PRESTIGE, in which he plays Nikola Tesla’s decidedly human assistant, Alley.  Bowie plays Tesla himself, the eccentric real-life inventor who is fictionalized here as something of a reclusive wizard of the electric occult– the mastermind behind a mysterious technology that allows Angier to harness a power far beyond his ability to truly understand it.

Returning cinematographer Wally Pfister and production designer Nathan Crowley cement their status as core members of Nolan’s inner collaborative circle, each scoring a respective Oscar nomination for their efforts here.  THE PRESTIGE expectedly reinforces Nolan’s reputation for impeccable cinematography and unrivaled production value– but this time, it almost comes in spite of the significant budgetary resources at his disposal.  Stylistically-speaking, the film has more in common with his earlier independent work than his two recent studio efforts, often employing a handheld camera that finds the 2.35:1 frame organically instead of imposing precise and deliberate compositions on his subjects.  Nolan and Pfister complement this approach by avoiding artificial light whenever possible, which works in unison with the handheld camerawork to bring Nolan’s first recreation of a historical period to vivid life.  Whereas Nolan’s prior reliance on natural light on FOLLOWING was born of practical necessity, his adoption of it here exhibits his supreme confidence as a filmmaker, in that he’s actively choosing to deprive himself of the luxury of a controlled lighting scheme.  It also serves as thematic reinforcement for the story itself, being set in a world that was coming out of the industrial revolution and into a bold new era of electricity.  All this being said, Nolan doesn’t quite fully embrace his indie roots– he still delves regularly into the studio toybox, pulling out dolly tracks, crane arms, and helicopter mounts to imbue his picture with a majestic, classical sense of scale.  Angier’s journey to see Tesla in his isolated compound at Colorado Springs also allows Nolan to dabble with the iconic visual language of the western genre.

Just as he had done with BATMAN BEGINS, production designer Nathan Crowley spent a great deal of THE PRESTIGE’s development process working out of Nolan’s garage, working intimately with the director to establish the physical aesthetic as manifest in the sets, props, and costumes.  THE PRESTIGE utilizes a similar color palette to BATMAN BEGINS, rendering the 35mm film image in earth & metal tones, warming up interior sequences with a cozy amber hue while lathering exteriors in a cold, cobalt veneer.  The color red is used sparingly, saved for the interiors of the majestic theatres or Angier’s Colorado stagecoach so as to better evoke the romanticism of their profession while contrasting it against the grimy working-class environs from which their shows provide a fantastical escape.  Unlike his work on BATMAN BEGINS, Crowley built only one set for THE PRESTIGE– the under-stage section of the theatre where Angier, Borden, and Cutter congregate after a hard day’s work of amazing the unwashed masses.  With the exception of the Universal backlot subbing in for the muddy streets of London, much of THE PRESTIGE was shot on location, giving the film a smoky, industrial texture that simply can’t be replicated on a soundstage.  Some might be surprised to learn that the majority of THE PRESTIGE was shot in Los Angeles, utilizing well-chosen locales that handily pass for 1900’s-era London, like Greystone Mansion– a grand oil tycoon’s estate in Beverly Hills often seen in a variety of other films like The Coen Brothers’ THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1988) or Paul Thomas Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007).  The various theatres seen throughout the film were found amidst the opulent, forgotten auditoriums and movie palaces of downtown LA’s Broadway Theatre District– many of which had been sitting unused for years, ready to play the part with little need for additional set dressing.

Post-production offers yet another opportunity for Nolan to reteam with previous collaborators.  BATMAN BEGINS’ editor Lee Smith reprises his duties here, effortlessly juggling the complicated machinery of Nolan’s narrative.  Composer David Julyan also returns for his fourth collaboration with Nolan after sitting out the scoring job on BATMAN BEGINS.  Julyan’s suite of cues for THE PRESTIGE bears a heavy resemblance to his prior work for Nolan, foregoing any sort of melodic shape in favor of a brooding, orchestral drone.  Of all the creative aspects that make up THE PRESTIGE, most critics agreed that Julyan’s work here was the weak link, content to be regularly overwhelmed by Nolan’s visuals while offering up very little in the way of its own character.  Indeed, the most interesting aspect of THE PRESTIGE’s music is the fact that Nolan uses the Thom Yorke track “Analyse” over the credits– notable by its rare exception to Nolan’s otherwise-established preference for original score over licensed needledrops.  As of this writing, THE PRESTIGE marks the last time Nolan would work with his oldest collaborator, with the consensus of critical disappointment surrounding Julyan’s score perhaps solidifying Nolan’s burgeoning partnership with Hans Zimmer as a more appropriate fit for the big-budget studio filmmaker he was becoming.

THE PRESTIGE may have been overshadowed in the wake of the larger success of his subsequent films, but it stands to reason that it’s also a highly personal work that most intimately convey’s Nolan’s artistic worldview towards his own profession.  He clearly sees undeniable similarities in the stagecraft behind both magic and filmmaking, like a shared emphasis on sleight of hand and visual trickery to make the audience believe in something unreal, or impossible.  The central philosophy of magic that gives the film its title consists of three prongs– The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige.  Nolan weaves this philosophy into the structure of the screenplay itself, assigning each prong to its corresponding act.  The Pledge presents the audience with a seemingly normal object, just as Act 1 introduces the status quo of a particular story’s setting and characters.  The Turn finds the illusionist doing something extraordinary with that object, like making it disappear– a fitting allusion to Act 2’s need to present the protagonist with a problem that must be solved.  But as the film continually reminds us, it’s not enough to make something disappear; you have to bring it back.  Act 3 and The Prestige serve the same purpose: to return to the status quo via extraordinary, and sometimes even supernatural, effort.  

In typical Nolan style, however, THE PRESTIGE doesn’t present it sequence of events in such a simple or linear fashion.  The story rests on a series of key revelations, many of which become more effective or intriguing when the audience doesn’t yet have full context.  Just as he did in his previous films, Nolan and editor Lee Smith chart the rise and fall of both Angier and Borden out of sequence, jumbling up the chronology for strategic effect much like a magician will employ distraction techniques and sleight of hand to conceal the machinery that makes the trick possible.  Angier and Borden also follow in Nolan’s grand parade of profoundly flawed protagonists– both men are consumed by their ambition and competitiveness, driven to do great things that give them renown and acclaim, but also horrible deeds that tarnish their careers with infamy.  Their shared desire for greatness, no matter the cost, becomes their Achilles heel, forcing them to new lows even as they struggle to one-up each other.  Nolan’s interest in functional style takes a necessary turn towards opulence in THE PRESTIGE, dressing his protagonists in peacocking threads that reinforce their strategic need to dazzle their audiences with flash and elegance.  Their garb even serves to conceal complicated undersuits vital to executing dramatic, impossible tricks; best seen in a primitive, mechanical contraption of Cutter’s design that looks like something Batman would have worn had he been born a century earlier.  

Nolan’s direction clearly benefits from the confidence and wealth of experience he accumulated on the set of BATMAN BEGINS, navigating the labyrinthine twists and turns of THE PRESTIGE’s narrative with effortless ease and dexterity.  Interestingly enough, THE PRESTIGE was one of three films released in 2006 to deal with the world of magic, the other two being THE ILLUSIONIST and Woody Allen’s SCOOP (which also starred Jackman and Johansson).  The film enjoyed a robust run at the box office and a slew of positive reviews from critics, attaining a level of success it might not have had otherwise, had interest in Nolan’s artistic character not been fueled by the monster hit that was BATMAN BEGINS.  In the years since its release, THE PRESTIGE has only grown in critical and cultural regard, continuing to reveal new layers of thematic complexity and technical mastery with each repeat viewing.