The Prestige is arguably one of Christopher Nolan’s most underrated films from an incredible list of critically acclaimed movies over the last two decades
In recent years Christopher Nolan has become associated with big-budget blockbusters with films such as Inception, Tenet, The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar, and Dunkirk, with a production budget of over $100 million for each film. While these films have established him as a household name, it was his films from the 2000s such as Memento, Insomnia, and The Prestige that earned him critical acclaim. He carved a niche for himself long before he became known for his blockbusters. The Prestige is one of those films made on a relatively low production budget of $40 million.
The film is a unique blend of sci-fi, bordering on fantasy, narrating a riveting tale of a cutthroat rivalry between stage magicians at the peak of their abilities in 19th century England. Christian Bale as Alfred Borden and Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier, the rival magicians, performed their roles to near perfection. The film also featured a stellar supporting cast of Michael Caine, Andy Serkis, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, and legendary musician David Bowie. It is interesting to note that the term ‘supporting character’ fits into this film unlike any other, simply because these characters have very specific, albeit minor roles in the narrative essential for continuity of the story and the arcs of Borden and Angier. The two magicians are literally and metaphorically on the centre stage, more often than not, honing their craft and their relentless desire to outdo one another regardless of the toll it takes on them and those around.
The very obvious theme of the film is how one’s obsession to perfect their craft could drive them insane, a phenomenon which many artists have confessed has affected their mental well-being. In fact, Angier’s loss and trauma lead him down a path in search of unconventional methods to gain an upper hand on Borden. However, his pursuit of this near-mythical trick to usurp Borden blinds him from the obvious regarding Borden and how Borden pulls off the ‘Prestige’. The whole film is in fact an elaborate setup that foreshadows how Nolan pulls a trick on the audience with his own version of the ‘Prestige’ act. The climactic sequences of the movie perfectly tie all the unanswered questions of the film, something which many great films have faltered at.
While obsession is one of the primary themes of the narrative, with Angier being the centre of it, sacrifice is another theme that the film delves into. Borden’s arc may not appear to be as tragic as Anger’s but is equally, if not more tragic than Angier’s life. Borden is forced to sacrifice his identity, his relationships, and even a part of his life, and the other extreme measures he forces upon himself to maintain the illusion of his act. The sacrifice he endures to have that edge over Angier, is unfathomable for an average human being. This is in fact the very essence of the story Nolan is trying to convey - an extraordinary tale of two extraordinary individuals.
Nolan has made a name for himself in how he subverts genres. For instance, The Dark Knight is a political thriller that features a comic book character, Inception is a heist film within a sci-fi narrative about dream infiltration, and Tenet belongs to the sci-fi genre and is in fact an elaborate espionage film. Similarly, The Prestige is a psychological thriller that has few elements of science fiction in the narrative. Regardless of how his films are perceived, they are invariably universally acclaimed.