After thoroughly enjoying The Illusionist, I was interested to see The Prestige, which also features turn-of-the-century magicians. I expected it to be a less-stylish film, with flashier special effects and more of a thriller than a character drama. While I was right, that understates the film’s quality considerably: It’s quite a good film.
The film opens in 1899 with Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) witnessing the death-by-drowning of his rival magician, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) during a perfoormance gone awry, followed by Borden being jailed for Angier’s murder, likely to be executed. In prison, Borden reads Angier’s diary from the last ten years, in which Angier in turn writes about decoding one of Borden’s journals.
The film centers around the rivalry between the two men. When they were young and both employed by the same magician, Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo) drowned during an act, for which Angier blamed Borden for tying her with the wrong knot. Borden sets himself up as a solo act after meeting his wife, Sarah (Rebecca Hall), but loses most of two fingers when Angier sabotages his bullet-catching act. Angier starts his own career working with their mentor, Cutter (Michael Caine), and his assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), but his own early career is sabotaged by Borden.
Borden’s career takes off when he unveils a fantastic crowd-pleaser called The Transported Man, in which he enters one cabinet on stage and emerges from another one across the stage just a second later. Angier is desperate to copy this trick. Cutter is certain that Borden is using a double, but Angier is sure it’s the same man. Olivia agrees with Angier, since she’s seen that Angier is missing two fingers at both ends of the trick.
Angier sends Olivia to Borden to spy on him, and she produces Borden’s coded journal. Decoding it, the journal sends Angier to America to seek out Nikolas Tesla (David Bowie) who he is convinced will yield the secret of Borden’s trick. This sets in motion the events that lead to the story’s tragic ending, which is layered with several surprises.
The Prestige was co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest. Nolan was also the man behind Memento – another very cool film – as well as Batman Begins, and he continues to entertain with his latest clever and engaging film.
The story of personal hatred and professional jealousy is very well done, and is mixed with Borden’s up-and-down relationship with Sarah, and his love for their daughter Jess (Samantha Mahurin). Although the film has the unavoidable sense of foreboding (given that it opens with Angier’s drowning), the feeling of watching these two men at the edge of a new scientific age, both of whom are dedicated to their professions, keeps alive the feeling that if only they’d give up their rivalry they’d both be the better for it.
The acting is first-rate. Bale and Jackman are both quite good, but they’re overshadowed by Caine’s fine performance as the man watching the drama from the wings, and especially by Bowie’s intense performance of obsession and self-control as Tesla. Johanssen is, well, not bad, but not great either; Hall’s role as Sarah has more meat to it, so she comes out with the stronger performance.
The underlying theme of the film is about tricks and secrets. One of the refrains in the dialogue is “Are you watching closely?” The film opens with this line, throwing down the gauntlet that there’s something funny going on here and challenging us to figure out what it is. The meat and potatoes of a magic act is a trick, fooling the audience into thinking they’re seeing something other than they are. But no trick is as successful as one backed by a deep secret, something the audience can’t suspect is working in the act. Both Borden and Angier are playing games with more than one level of secrets. Everything is revealed by the end, and although I figured some of it out ahead of time, some of it still managed to surprise me.
Although it has strong character elements, The Prestige is not the character drama that The Illusionist is, and I didn’t think it was quite as good a film. But it’s still very good, and if you enjoyed Nolan’s earlier films, you’ll like this one too.
The rest of this review contains spoilers, so stop reading here if you don’t want the film’s secrets spoiled for you.
Debbi wondered about the water tank trick in which Angier’s wife died: Since the tank’s lock is supposed to be a trick lock, why couldn’t they just remove the lock, open the top of the tank and pull her out? Why use an axe? I couldn’t figure that out, either.
For the record, I figured out that Borden’s man Fallon was his twin, mainly because I knew he couldn’t have been using Tesla’s machine, and also because of Borden’s reaction when he learned Fallon had been buried alive. I didn’t figure out that Angier was being so brutal in his use of Tesla’s machine for his own trick. I wasn’t really sure whether to trust the science fictional nature of the machine, although from the cats and the hats I should have just trusted.
The film basically turns on whether one believes that the two Bordens would truly live as a single man, and that one would have his fingers deliberately chiseled off to further their career. While it rather begs a question (where was the twin before the pair invented Fallon?), I didn’t find it so far-fetched as to wreck my suspension of disbelief. And the subtlety with which the two Bordens’ motivations color their behaviors in different scenes is very well-done.
Ironically, given the film’s central plot element, there are two authors of fantastic fiction named Christopher Priest. I didn’t know until recently that they weren’t the same man.
I guess the moral of the film is, “Don’t send your bitterest rival to meet with reclusive genius scientists in remote places in the world – no good can come of it.” (Such a moral is right up there with the lesson from Calvin & Hobbes that “Snow Goons are bad news”!)