Rivals in magic duel to the death, and possibly beyond, in ‘The Prestige’

September 18, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 18, 2015

Author’s note: I had this post almost ready to go on Sept. 9 when my computer went kablooey. Well, I’ve got a new machine now and I’m back online, so here, at long last, is the post you’ve been waiting for — my review of a Christopher Nolan film released nine years ago. Enjoy, all! MEM

The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie based on the 1995 Christopher Priest novel of the same title, begins by plunging the viewer into the heart of a tangled web of misdirection and deception.

Just before magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) performs his signature feat, dubbed the New Transported Man, spectators in an immense ritzy London theater sometime near the beginning of the 20th century are invited to the stage to examine what purports to be a teleportation device. But one of the men who’s chosen to do so is not what he seems. As Angier runs through his spiel, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) brushes past a stagehand and descends below the stage, where he finds a blind man — completely oblivious to Borden’s presence — sitting patiently.

The scenes are narrated by a long monologue that turns out to be delivered by Cutter (Michael Caine), Angier’s ingénieur — a facilitator of illusions. “Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts,” Cutter tells us.

The first part is called the pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course, it probably isn’t.

A second scene is intercut with the mysterious action in the theater. Cutter is demonstrating a trick to a girl about 7 years old.

The second act is called the turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret — but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.

As Borden removes his fake beard and mustache, he inspects a large locked water tank that seems to be positioned directly below the machine. Cutter makes a canary vanish. In the London theater, Angier disappears in a hail of lightning.

The monologue continues:

But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call the prestige.

Cutter produces a canary. And Borden watches, in astonishment, as Angier appears inside the tank — and begins to drown inside it.

The film cuts to a courtroom where we find Borden on trial for Angier’s murder. As Cutter cagily refuses to testify in public about the Transported Man trick, Borden covertly waves to a young girl watching from the balcony. The girl — the same one Cutter was entertaining — waves back before being escorted away by a mysterious figure, whom we later learn is Borden’s own ingénieur and aide-de-camp, Bernard Fallon. Borden agrees to disclose details about the New Transported Man privately to the judge, and proceedings are adjourned.

Next, an attorney named Owens visits Borden in jail. He says that his client, Lord Caldlow, will pay £5,000 for Borden to reveal all of the secrets behind his magic tricks. The prisoner is resistant, but Owens knows Borden’s vulnerability.

If Borden agrees to sell his secrets before his anticipated execution, the lawyer proposes, then his client, Lord Caldlow, will take custody of the defendant’s daughter; otherwise, she will likely be consigned to a poorhouse. As a gesture of good faith, Owens leaves behind a journal. It was written by Robert Angier, the lawyer says, and it covers the time he spent in Colorado learning Borden’s original Transported Man.

Borden, still defiant, returns to his cell with the journal — and here the movie really begins to become complicated. As we watch Angier’s journey to America, Borden reads about Angier decoding and poring through Borden’s own diary. Most of the rest of the film, which was co-written by Nolan with his younger brother, Jonathan Nolan, consists of reminiscences conveyed by the two diaries.

We learn that years earlier, Borden and Angier were both employed by an established magician (played by real-life illusionist Ricky Jay) as audience plants. During every performance, the men are summoned to the stage, seemingly but not really at random, and asked to bind the hands and feet of assistant Julia McCullough (Piper Perabo) prior to her submersion within and escape from a locked water tank.

The duo’s lives are forever changed one day when something goes wrong with the trick and McCullough — who was Angier’s wife — drowns. The bereaved husband repeatedly demands to know what knot Borden tied, but Borden’s only answer is that he doesn’t know.

A vicious rivalry soon blossoms. Angier shoots and wounds Borden; Borden sabotages Angier’s stage debut. When Borden comes up with the original Transported Man, a fantastic trick that Angier and Cutter can’t figure out, Angier feels driven to learn the secret. Angier’s second theatrical show takes off, and he becomes intimate with Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), his primary stage assistant, and yet his obsession with the Transported Man burns.

Angier dispatches Olivia to serve as a mole in Borden’s act. She steals Borden’s diary, but the code initially foils Angier. He and Cutter kidnap Fallon and blackmail Borden into hinting at the Transported Man’s method. The tidbit of information that Borden surrenders sends Angier to America while simultaneously enabling him to decrypt his rival’s journal.

In Colorado Springs, Angier hopes to persuade the reclusive inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), into building a device that will enable him to top Borden’s Transported Man. Angier’s stay in the small town — one which, unusually, is fully wired for electricity, among other marvels natural and not — extends into a months-long contest of wills. First Angier must badger Tesla and his assistant, Alley (Andy Serkis), into meeting with him and hearing his request; then Angier must wait until the eccentric scientist comes up with a device that fulfills his needs.

Soon afterward, the narratives meet up, and all (or most) is resolved — although not before the Nolans and their characters unveil a few surprises. By the time we’ve arrived at the climax, several relationships — including that of Borden and his wife, Sarah (Rebecca Hall), and Olivia’s liaisons with both Borden and Angier — have come to ruin.

The Prestige has several hallmarks of a Christopher Nolan joint, not least among them that regular troupers Bale and Caine appear in prominent roles. Many character traits are familiar: Borden, like Cooper in Interstellar and Cobb in Inception, is prevented from being with his child or children. The imprisonment of Borden calls to mind Bruce Wayne and his incarceration in The Dark Knight Rises. Like Cooper, Cobb and Leonard from Memento, a main character in The Prestige is a widower. Rachel Dawes tells Bruce Wayne (also played by Bale) in Batman Begins that his face is his mask, and the same could be said of one of the protagonists here. And The Prestige’s dueling magicians are more similar than either truly cares to admit, much like Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight, Cooper and Mann in Interstellar and detective Will Dormer and mystery writer Walter Finch in Insomnia.

And as in Interstellar, InceptionInsomniaMemento and Batman Begins, Nolan hops quickly from narrative thread to narrative thread, especially at the beginning of the film. And, as in The Dark Knight Rises, there’s a trusted ally whose loyalty may not be as complete as the employer believes.

Unfortunately, The Prestige also indulges one of Nolan’s worst tendencies: Having a bloated, extended climax that’s extremely heavy on explanations needed to dispel the confusion engendered by an elaborate plot. This blunts what might otherwise be one of the the director’s best-constructed and best-paced movies since Memento, which I consider to be his best overall work.

Still, the film’s rivalry is captivating; it’s hard to stop watching Angier and Borden as they push each other to ever more outrageous measures in an effort to get the best of one another. The film, like most Nolan joints, is visually lush. The cast is also excellent, although unfortunately the female characters, Olivia in particular, are a bit underwritten. The Prestige very successfully creates a world and a mysterious subculture that feel fully formed. And the movie also efficiently hints at the wondrous but dangerous realms in which Tesla and Alley are dabbling, which seem like they could be the subject of a whole other movie about dangerous obsessions.

In all, The Prestige is an entertaining feature that furnishes grist for the mind as well as the eye. It’s probably one of Nolan’s top three movies, and anyone with an interest in intrigue ought to be sure to see it.

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