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It is not truly possible to separate the art from the artist. You can still enjoy art while paying little attention to its source, but a total separation isn’t possible. There is always a bleed-over, intentional or not. Moreover, any critical analysis of art would be ill-equipped without a consideration of the artist.
Christopher Nolan is not exempt from this rule. His films are known for their interesting concepts and labyrinthine plots which culminated in 2020’s Tenet. Loud and confusing, the film was branded as “Nolan at his worst excesses” by less favourable reviews.
But simultaneously, it wasn’t anything new. His tendency to include long, expositional, and poorly mixed dialogues has long been a feature, as has his trademark emotional iciness – though that criticism I’ve been less sympathetic towards.
Struggling to understand what the deal was with Nolan’s directing, I decided to re-watch his entire directorial filmography. Something clicked when I re-watched 2006’s often forgotten The Prestige – I discovered that a lot of Nolan’s decisions start to make sense when viewed through the framing of a magic trick. It’s my view that the vastly underrated film is not only one of Nolan’s best, but also the most characteristic one for his directorial ideology.
Just like magic tricks, his films often display their unintuitive conceits at the forefront, with satisfying solutions and ‘gotcha’ endings. The most explicit example would be Inception with its paradox motif, a psychological magic trick we play on ourselves.
This mindset is clearly stated:
“The world is simple, miserable, solid, all the way through. But if you can fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder. And you get to see something very special”.
That’s why Nolan’s dialogue is as challenging as it is, despite being a common point of criticism. Its only purpose is to set a scene, to make sure you’re “watching closely”. It’s no more deserving of the spotlight than the music or costume design.
But just as common is the criticism of a certain emotional chilliness to his films. That just like a trick, they lack an inherent heart.
However, never has this been less true for The Prestige.
Not a moment passes where the two main characters aren’t suffering from their sacrifice to illusion and artistic deception. Some scenes, and the implications of certain revelations, are genuinely heart-wrenching, something the film shows you rather than tells you. Every character feels important to the emotional core of the film as opposed to pieces in the puzzle.
The film even functions as a plea for using practical visual effects despite all their impracticalities, something Nolan often advocates. After all, this is the director who famously crashed a real plane in The Dark Knight Rises, and repeated it in Tenet.
The end result is a heart-felt manifesto for the ideology of filmmaking that Christopher Nolan deploys, and is never to renege on. The Prestige executes this filmmaking approach in a captivating way, making it a complete ‘trick’ in and of itself – one that compels to an immediate re-watch.