An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: The Prestige (2006)

Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan's tale of warring Victorian

Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan's tale of warring Victorian magicians. Photo: Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros - Credit: Archant

Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.

Michael Caine in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan's tale of warring Victorian magicians. Photo: Step

Michael Caine in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan's tale of warring Victorian magicians. Photo: Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros - Credit: Archant

The Prestige; dir: Christopher Nolan; starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis, Piper Perabo. Cert: 12 (2006)

Today Christopher Nolan is an important figure in the British movie establishment. Ten years ago, he was a newly discovered talent making his name with a series of challenging, yet hugely entertaining, stories that refused to follow a conventional storytelling framework.

Christopher Nolan has a knack of telling a story in a non-linear fashion. Memento announced his arrival in dramatic fashion in 2000 plunging Guy Pearce into a murder hunt while suffering from memory-loss but it was with The Prestige six years later that Nolan got to really play with a convoluted timeline which not only leapt backwards and forwards but also took characters outside themselves.

Michael Caine and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan's tale of warring Victorian magic

Michael Caine and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan's tale of warring Victorian magicians. Photo: Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros - Credit: Archant

The beauty of The Prestige is that it works on many levels. You can sit back and watch it as a straight forward period mystery, or as a wonderful piece of Victorian steam-punk science fiction or as a commentary on love and friendship and it delivers a satisfying result however you choose to view it.

To all intents and purposes, The Prestige is an engaging tale of two one-time friends Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, magicians working in the Victorian music hall, who fall out when a trick goes badly wrong, killing Angier’s wife played by Piper Perabo. They end up as warring rivals becoming increasingly bitter and competitive as the years go by.

As you would expect from Nolan, the story is full of twists and turns, is engagingly complicated, but is also smart and classy. The period setting is brilliantly done, lending the film a lot of atmosphere and relishes the Victorians love of on-stage trickery but, as the film points out, sometimes it’s not all done with smoke and mirrors.

Director Christopher Nolan on the set of The Prestige with Christian Bale. Photo: Stephen Vaughan/Wa

Director Christopher Nolan on the set of The Prestige with Christian Bale. Photo: Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros - Credit: Archant

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Angier (Jackman) and Borden (Bale) start the film as apprentices to master magician Michael Caine and their rivalry becomes increasingly intense when they both fall for the beautiful assistant played by Scarlett Johansson.

Caine, on excellent form, plays Cutter the magical impresario who instructs not only his two young charges but also the audience in the ways of misdirection and sleight of hand. He explains that every trick is comprised of three parts: The Pledge, in which a seemingly real situation is set up, which is followed by The Turn, in which the initial reality is challenged, and finally we get The Prestige, where the crowd, confused, amazed and thrilled, applaud in disbelief.

In many ways The Prestige is just such a magician’s trick and you spend many hours thinking about all the various elements, putting them all together, making sense of the fractured nature of the story, long after the film has finished. Nevertheless, it is hugely enjoyable even if you can’t quite keep everything straight in your mind.

Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan's tale of warring Victorian magi

Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan's tale of warring Victorian magicians. Photo: Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros - Credit: Archant

The performances in the film are superb Caine is stunning as the older, wiser theatre manager but all the characters are designed to be memorable and three-dimensional even smaller roles like those played by David Bowie, Piper Perabo and Rebecca Hall.

The film’s period setting not only relishes the music hall setting but also has fun with the Victorian fascination with science and exploration. Angier and Borden are shown to be very different people but they are equally driven by the desire to be the greatest showman of the age.

At first, the curmudgeonly Borden would appear to be on the way down, playing smaller downmarket venues until he debuts his signature The Transported Man trick, in which he ‘teleports’ from one cabinet to another.

This intrigues the now almost aristocratic Angier who sets out to discover the secret of Borden’s amazing feat which would appear to be almost ‘real magic’. However, the Victorian era prided itself on science rather than superstition and his investigations lead him to the United States and real-life scientist Nikola Tesla (Bowie) and his work on the marvels of electricity but it seems that some things still can’t easily be explained

The Prestige is a movie full of story, character, atmosphere and period detail. Nolan may play with the storytelling format but we, as an audience, are never abandoned. As a magical thriller, it’s terrifically entertaining and as a story of extreme obsession, it really gets under the skin.

Like the magicians of yore, Christopher Nolan pulls a cinematic rabbit out of the hat and it would appear that he also gets away with murder.

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