Christopher Nolan’s bad movies are better than most people’s good ones. I count three of them (Memento, Inception and The Dark Knight) among my all-time favourites, and I have enjoyed everything else of his that I’ve seen (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar). Noticeably absent from that list, until this week, was The Prestige, which usually appears near the top of critics’ “best of Nolan” lists. So when The Prestige popped up on Netflix’s “recently added” row, I dove in immediately.
The Prestige is a tale of the ever-escalating war between two rival magicians, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. Bale is the purer magician while Jackman is the larger commercial success. As the stakes get ratcheted up, Bale is arrested for Jackman’s murder. But in a battle of illusionists, can we really believe what we see?
Structurally, The Prestige is as complex as anything that Nolan has thrown at us. This movie shouldn’t work as well as it does. There are flashbacks within flashbacks but I knew at all times where/when a scene fit in with the rest of the film. We’ve got enough examples by now of Nolan’s capabilities, but The Prestige is yet another display of his narrative mastery. Basing the film on the three parts of a magic trick works very well, keeping the viewer on edge until the big reveal.
The reveal itself, though, left me disappointed. It was a huge stretch that went completely against the movie’s prior suggestions that the secret of magic is setting up the trick and selling it to the audience. I found the reveal of both Bale and Jackman’s methods problematic, in different ways, but Jackman’s big surprise was what really took the air out of the film for me.
Because of that, on my list The Prestige gets relegated to the lower tier of Nolan films, somewhere in Interstellar territory. Make no mistake, though, that’s due to Nolan having made so many great films as opposed to The Prestige being a bad movie. It’s still pretty damn good!