A culture blog, mostly focused on film and television. Warning: spoilers!!!
Film Review: The Prestige (2006)
June 2, 2017
Arguably Christopher Nolan’s best film to date, The Prestige stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as rival magicians in London at the beginning of the 20th century. Robert Angier (Jackman) is a skilled showman who develops an unhealthy obsession with defeating genius illusionist Alfred Borden (Bale). Their personal and professional rivalry pushes both men to great success but also toward dangerous and violent actions. Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, and Rebecca Hall play supporting characters that suffer collateral damage from Angier and Borden’s competitiveness.
The Prestige is an epiphany of storytelling aided by masterful acting and ingenious editing. The opening premise reveals the three steps to every magic trick—the pledge (introduction to an ordinary object), the turn (transformation of the object), and the prestige (restoration of the object)—and the film goes on to unveil numerous prestiges in Angier’s and Borden’s shows. However, the greatest prestige yet is in the plot itself, which at the end dismantles the secrets behind the men and their versions of their shared greatest trick: the transported man. Nolan also slowly reveals his own prestige by allowing Angier and Borden to narrate their own tales via diary flashbacks nestled in diary flashbacks. This clever, structural design engages the viewer in a storytelling puzzle that culminates in a twisty and worthwhile ending as Nolan weaves multiple storylines in order to confound and excite. Of course, this is not the first or last time he uses several timelines and careful editing to tell a story; previously, Nolan has played with these techniques in the reverse-ordered Memento and then later in the dream levels of Inception.
Christian Bale gives a subtle and revelatory performance as Borden, which upon repeated viewings prove to be even more impressive as (major spoilers in this paragraph!) it is later revealed that he is actually playing multiple characters. Switching from kind, intelligent Alfred to brash, incendiary Freddie and mute, mysterious Fallon, Bale flexes his considerable acting chops in a way that is nearly imperceptible at first glance. He comes up against Jackman as Angier and the film mirrors the two characters at each turn, producing a theme of doubles. Both Angier and Borden are inducted into the Dead Wives Club (a motif in basically all of Nolan’s films), both have affairs with their assistant (in fact, the same one), both are maimed in their rivalry (fingers and legs), and the list goes on. Many scenes, objects, and lines of dialogue are also presented twice, including the monologue by Michael Caine at the opening and closing scenes of the film. This doubling enforces the themes and the ending of the film in brilliant ways.
Science and magic are, of course, two other major themes in The Prestige. In the exciting, turn-of-the-century era in which the film is set, innovations in science and technology reach mythic heights of popularity. Inventors are treated like celebrities and go on tour with their spectacular, electric-powered machines, astonishing crowds and competing with each other for money and fame. The notorious, historical antagonism between Nikola Tesla—played by the late, great David Bowie in the film—and Thomas Edison parallels the rivalry between Angier and Borden. In another manner, the film also reveals the technical ingenuity behind the magic tricks themselves: trap doors, specially fabricated cages, and false locks help bring to life seemingly impossible feats. Lastly, the set-up of science and magic as interconnected notions brings to mind this famous quotation by science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”