Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige uses dueling magicians to put one over on the audience

Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige uses dueling magicians to put one over on the audience

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has us thinking about other films about magicians.

The Prestige (2006) 
Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel The Prestige takes its title from a term Priest invented for the payoff of a magic trick, the third part of a three-part structure that makes a promise to the punters, then shows them something exciting, then seals the deal with a final triumph. But the title openly doubles as the thing the dueling stage magicians in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film adaptation are chasing: the fame and admiration that goes to the magician with the most amazing trick. Like all Nolan’s films, The Prestige is a portrait of obsession, as former stage partners Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman square off, trying to top each other as performers: Bale is obsessed with perfecting his craft, but distracted by his relationships, while Jackman is obsessed with avenging his wife, who died in a magic trick gone wrong, possibly due to Bale’s negligence. Over the course of the film, they sabotage each other’s tricks and careers, with mounting physical and mental costs on both sides, but the film saves the final nested reveals—the prestiges in the complicated trick it pulls off—for the final moments.

Nolan’s Prestige is magic in another way: It’s the rare case of a film that’s more effective than its literary source material. For the script, Nolan and his brother Jonathan ditch the novel’s epistolary structure, pare away a present-day timeline and some intimations of a ghost story, and streamline the storytelling, while adding stronger motivations, crueler twists, and a more stunning ending. It’s the rare film that operates breathlessly and clearly on the first viewing, but rewards subsequent viewings—once the secrets are all out in the open, it’s easier to see how the Nolans play fair with the audience, leaving all the clues in plain sight, and giving them a chance to deduce what’s behind the curtain. (Bale’s performance in particular becomes more impressive on second viewings.) As Bale points out in the film—and then immediately sees disappointingly proved—no one respects a magic trick once they see how it’s done. Except in the case of The Prestige, where seeing the mechanical structure at work throughout the film just makes it better.

Availability: Not currently streaming, but available for digital rental from the usual suspects, and on DVD and Blu-ray.

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