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Film Review: The Prestige

The Prestige (2006; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s thematically resonant story of rival magicians in Late Victorian London opens with a pile of identical black top hats. A voiceover narration asks us if we are watching closely, a cue that doing so will be very important for next two hours. But this opening image contains all of the active implications of The Prestige: duplication becoming multiplication becoming fragmentation, appearances concealing realities, science, industry and technology making the fantastic not only real but terribly, irrevocably, devastatingly real. The engaging assistant (Andy Serkis) of the real-life wizard who built the machine that made numerous copies of the hat belonging to Charles Angier (Hugh Jackman) tells Angier, “They’re all your hats.” But like the multiplying anthropomorphic broomsticks in Fantasia‘s “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” sequence, mass reproduction in The Prestige evokes not wonder but horror.

Based on the novel by Christopher Priest, the Nolan siblings’ film (they co-wrote and of course Christopher directed) does indeed focus on two contending magicians in Late Victorian London engaging in a contest of professional one-upmanship that extracts a greater cost with every new outstripping gesture. But both Angier and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are living opposing double lives: Angier uses an assumed name and an American accent to conceal his aristocratic origins, while the lower-class Borden’s double-living is fundamental to his onstage act’s success as well as to his personal life’s turmoil and tragedy. Starting out working together under the same hackish magic-man (played by real-life magician Ricky Jay, also the film’s stage magic consultant) alongside self-proclaimed ingénieur (ie. designer of tricks) John Cutter (Michael Caine), Borden and Angier fall out permanently when Borden’s perfectionist streak may have (or may not have) contributed to the death of Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo) onstage in a watertank escape trick.

Each magic-man rises to solo prominence as a theatrical draw, Angier as the Great Danton (a flamboyant, French-sounding stage name that his wife suggests) and Borden as the Professor (a moniker suggesting Borden’s cloistered, cerebral, anti-social sincerity vis-a-vis his craft). The professional jealousy and personal resentment they mutually feel leads them to inflict escalating punishment on each other, beginning with physical disfigurements, rising to professional sabotage and romantic damage, and finally settling on fatal vengeance. Success on its own terms is not enough for either man; it must be at the expense of his rival. The beautiful stage assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) becomes a pawn in their game, hired and wooed by Angier but then falling for Borden when she is sent to spy on him to suss out his stage secrets.

This rivalry at the pinnacle of London’s magic performance world mirrors a famous contemporaneous rivalry in the realm of scientific innovation, where real-life conjurers Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla (the latter played here by a wonderfully pent-up David Bowie) vied for supremacy in the burgeoning industry of electricity. Like Angier and Borden, these scientific genius inventors tore each down in their battle over the future of the electric power supply; the corporate-backed Edison discredited his former pupil Tesla’s superior alternating current technology (which had its own corporate backer, mind you, in George Westinghouse) in favour of his own direct current method, leaving the latter bankrupt by the end of his life. History has vindicated Tesla and his technology as the preferred mass-power-supply option, however, and left the underhanded, controlling Edison with a more tarnished if still tremendous legacy.

To get back to the magicians, it both is and is not a spoiler to reveal that Borden achieves the Transported Man trick that makes him famous, in which he enters one doorway and exits another on the other side of the stage, by the use of a double. The jealous Angier (whose driving motivation seems to shift every 15 minutes) refuses to believe Cutter and Olivia when they tell him that this is how the trick is achieved, insisting that it must be something more complicated. Angier himself copies the trick for his show with a copy of himself, a drunken unemployed actor named Gerald Root (a much looser Jackman seems to be channeling Steve Coogan as Root). But he cannot shake the feeling that there is more to Borden’s version.

After Borden sabotages Angier’s New Transported Man, the latter sets off for the mountains of Colorado in search of Tesla, whose name is the cypher that unlocks Borden’s encoded journal. Tesla is experimenting on a peak outside of Colorado Springs, creating power fields that light up row upon row of Edison’s tungsten lightbulbs (multiplication again), and reluctantly builds Angier a machine that allows him to trump Borden’s Transported Man in a fuzzily scientific way. But there is a terrible price to this admittedly incredible trick whose cost Angier may not be able to bear.

This contending of ambitious male wills stuff would be narratively and thematically meaty enough for most filmmakers, but not for Chris Nolan, who amplifies the elements of doubling and mirroring to create a resonant statement on the fragmentation of the self in a post-industrial society. Nolan loves to pull the switch on his audience and is given ample opportunity to do so here. His narrative is characteristically fragmented in temporal terms, cutting between the magician wars in London, Angier reading Borden’s journal in Colorado while waiting to meet with Tesla about the machine, and Borden reading Angier’s journal while waiting to be executed for his rival’s apparent murder and deciding whether to give a mysterious magic enthusiast named Lord Caldlow both his stage secrets and custody of his daughter as a ward after his death. Each journal is itself a trick, an elaborate trap for his rival laid by the magician who wrote it.

The concluding twist of The Prestige is itself a double: Borden is revealed to be twin brothers, platooning the public identity of Alfred and that of his quiet bearded companion Fallon, while Angier’s Tesla-aided Real Transported Man creates a living double of the magician that he then must drown beneath the stage to preserve the illusion of the performance. The tempermentally-divergent Bordens fail to preserve a fulfilling life, falling in love with different women and losing both (Bale’s perfectly-tuned performance makes this dual-personality conceit seem plausible once it’s revealed), while Angier, who assumes masking identities both on and off stage, splits his self into multiple copies (the film’s final shot is of a room full of drowned Angier copies in watertanks similar to that in which his wife died) in order to achieve theatrical stardom as well as to entrap Borden for his “murder”. But then that’s not what ultimately drove him.

Alfred Borden “escapes” the non-theatrical trapdoor of the gallows by passing the identity to the surviving twin (double-identity becoming singular), then kills Angier amidst the relics of his moral fall in the name of fame. But Angier tells Borden in this closing sequence that he did not do what he did for the accolades, nor for the money (he’s nobility, and has plenty of lucre), nor even to avenge his wife. Angier wipes out his many evidently fickle, vacillating motivations by taking the high road, claiming that what appealed to him about performing magic was that briefest moment of the audience’s reaction to a great trick that made them doubt their depressing, rational reality and fleetingly believe in the fantastical, the impossible.

Caine’s Cutter prefaces the narrative by laying out the basic structure of all magic tricks: The Pledge, where the audience is shown something ordinary, mundane, familiar; The Turn, where the object is made into something extraordinary, fantastical, unfamiliar; and the Prestige, where the ordinary, mundane, and familiar is restored. Nolan’s film is structured like these three acts of a trick; Borden ultimately achieves the Prestige, the return to relative normalcy, in his own life because he understood and lived the Turn in his daily offstage existence, while Angier clings to a fleeting impression of how the Turn makes him feel because he cannot face that same return to normalcy in his “real” life, which is based in so many lies and appearances that he has lost touch with who he really is, if anyone. His climactic Real Transported Man casts the rise of the scientific, rational world as the ultimate Prestige, simultaneously making stage magic’s invocation of the fantastical in The Turn obsolete and stealing its thunder (or, in the case of Tesla, lightning) by crafting something that appeared to the world’s eyes as true magic. But the message of The Prestige is that this true magic, this Real Transported Man, is menacing rather than transcendent. It’s a trick that changes the nature of the ordinary, so that the Prestige, the return to the ordinary, can never truly happen. Abracadabra.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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