10+ Years Later: THE PRESTIGE, Christopher Nolan's Most Knotty Work
"In my travels, I have seen the future... And it is a strange future indeed. The world, ladies and gentleman, is on the brink of new, terrifying possibilities." This is how Robert Angier introduces his magic act, 'The Real Transported Man,' by cloaking it in the guise of science. Later, it is revealed that he is actually obfuscating science, in the semblance of a stage illusion, and yet is also hiding it in plain sight. Note the use of the word ‘real.’ Art is often the sharpest, where the hidden and the obvious intertwine.
Devotion to one's endeavours is at the core of The Prestige. The film was released in the fall of 2006, sandwiched in between director Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and uses key cast members from each of those films. It turns out that The Prestige is Christopher Nolan’s densest, most delightful film. Unpacking its many themes, here at the decade mark of its original release, may take some time.
We should marvel at the rate of change, particularly technology, at the beginning of the 21st century. The early aughts offered a plethora of society-altering tech: Smartphones, Social Media, Cloning, e-Commerce, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Automation Algorithms. In 2006, Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, likely picking up on the technological and social changes of our day, brought some sharply observed comparisons to that of the beginning of the 20th century. Together, they radically fused Christopher Priest's award-winning 1995 genre bending novel, The Prestige with Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law of Science - "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The resulting film is a complex and dark tale of obsession, against the backdrop of social, moral and ethical change.
The social disruption caused by the technologies coming into their own at the end of the nineteenth century - the automobile, radio, the telephone, motion pictures, and the airplane (and eventually, World War) - came in a breathless rush. None was more significant than the widespread adoption and use of electricity. In the very late 1800s, the ‘War of Currents’ between Thomas Edison’s DC (direct current) and Nicola Tesla’s AC (alternating current), was one of the key commercial conflicts. The battle for the privilege (and, ahem, prestige) to be able to transport society forward into a new era of technological wonder, was legendary in its ferocity.
The Prestige primarily focuses on the rivalry of two obsessive stage magicians, Robert Angier and Alfred Borden. Both are young, ambitious. Both are looking to make their mark on the London stage. Both attempt to balance a dual work and personal life. Edison and Tesla both lurk in the background; a mirror to their conflict. The film is obsessed with duplicity and doubles. This is slowly revealed in the subtly convoluted structure of the film: A series of interlocking diaries, Borden reading Angier’s and Angier reading Borden’s (inside of Angier’s). This is the precursor of the structure of Nolan’s dreams within dreams movie, Inception.
Where that much larger, flashier blockbuster, required a lot of hand-holding and coddling of a wider audience (to pay for a much greater budget). There is so much exposition in Inception that it almost breaks the film; at least to the point of being condescending towards a segment of the audience willing to do some work to understand its logic, construction and storytelling technique. No matter, this is all perfectly realized in The Prestige. In letting the audience sink or swim, and do the heavy lifting, it is a better film for it. Add in the the extra layer of showmanship, abetted by the magic trick at the heart of the film, and the film was almost too good to capture any kind of popular success at the box office.
Take the opening shot. A field of scattered top hats is shown. Robert Borden (who we haven’t seen yet) asks, “Are you watching closely?” This is the sign of a filmmaker that respects his audience in their ability to participate in the gamesmanship, and do some congnitive work, while they are entertained. Later, much later in fact, the source of the hats will be revealed, and it will be important. Even then, it remains the task of audience to decide what they actually saw, and if they are ready to accept it. Many did not. But like many great works of smart genre cinema (Blade Runner, The Thing, Silent Running), time has been kind. A growing cult, who consider this to be Nolan’s finest work, has always been there, lurking in the shadows.
Michael Caine is introduced in the next series of shots. His character, the aptly named Cutter (the editing of the film is precise) is a kind of technical engineer slash promoter for stage magicians. He outlines the structure of a great illusion. He is shown demonstrating this to a blonde child by way of a classic disappearing and re-appearing trick involving a live bird. He informs us not only of illusions, but of the film we are about to watch, that any great trick as three parts. The Pledge, where the magician (filmmaker) shows you something ordinary. The Turn, where he (she) makes that ordinary thing do something extraordinary, in this case the bird disappears. And the conclusion is eponymous Prestige, where things can (ostensibly) return to normal. The bird appears again, and the little girl claps with delight, but did she really understand what is going on? More importantly, does she really want to know?
We will find out later, that to accomplish that trick, one bird is murdered, and another, similar, bird will be the prestige in that it re-appeared. Duplicates and replacements are at the cold heart of The Prestige. At one point they are even referred to as ‘the prestige materials.’ The film has an interesting metaphor for technology and progress. What we do to the planet and ourselves, mostly unawares, for the sake of progress, be it the coal age or the space age, has an associated cost in humanity. And for these technological wonders few of us individually can grasp the details of how they actually work. We mainly know the results (the showmanship, if you will) for which we clap with delight, before moving on to the next thing.
Nolan does not introduce any of the key characters in a standard fashion. This sequence - along with the mysterious top hats - is itself The Pledge of the film. To confound matters, the editing of the images gleefully violate all standard the the rules of time and space in traditional cinema. There are disconnected clips of Angier performing while Borden snoops around the stage. And Cutter is, in actuality, occupying - one might say babysitting - the young daughter of Borden, in his workshop, while, elsewhere, the duelling magicians are having the film's final showdown. Not that we know any of this at the time. In quick succession, with Cutter still explaining the structure of a trick, we witness Angier drowning to his death in a tank of water, an event that takes place in the late-middle of the story, and then Borden on trial, accused of murdering Angier. One dissolve later, and we see Cutter testifying as a subject matter expert - and character witness - explaining to the court the nature of showmanship. This is all in the span of less than three minutes. The little blonde girl shows up twice, as she is also in the gallery of the courthouse with a mystery man. As an opening tease, this is dense stuff.
But things are only getting started.
Borden, who we now see is played by Christian Bale, 180 degrees from his Nolan-Batman (and equally orthogonal to his Nolan-Bruce Wayne), is languishing in prison and soon for the gallows. He is given his enemy’s diary as an act of trust, and a offer to sell his tricks and settle his affairs (read: his daughter’s future) before his impending demise. The film dives into the sordid history, via journal entry, Borden had with his rival, Angier (Hugh Jackman). This starts with a tragic incident of youthful hubris at the beginning of their careers. Both are assistants to an established magician.
This is a noteworthy onscreen cameo from the great real-life showman and illusionist, Ricky Jay, who also consulted on the subtler details of stagecraft and 'up-close-magic’ for the film. Bordon and Angier are plants in the audience for a water-escape trick. They bind up the magician’s assistant, in actuality, Angier’s pretty wife. This is done using a special kind of knot, so that she can slip them and open up the secret latch on the tank to escape in the span of holding her breath under water. Borden tries a different knot (with the consent of the escape artist, but not the magician boss) which he thinks will work better, but it does not, and the girl drowns.
This sets the exceptionally high stakes for both men: Angier’s potential future is changed in an instant. Borden is left to grapple, seemingly in denial, with the consequences of his actions. The knot-improvement incident brings to mind the old moral aphorism often associated with science, “Just be cause we could, it doesn’t mean we should.”
Borden’s working-class circumstance and ethos, gives hime a deep understanding of what it takes to do accomplish something great: Total commitment. We see this in a scene (a flashback in a flashback) where the two magicians go to watch the stage-act of a frail Asian magician who makes a giant bowl of water containing a koi fish appear from under his robe. Borden immediately sees that the crux of the act is the magician pretending - always and everywhere - to be frail.
Later, both attend a science expo featuring towering Tesla coils, and Edison’s goons spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about this new ‘wireless’ technology. The sharp eyed will spy that the exhibit has a hand drawn playbill drawn featuring Nicola Tesla, presented in the fashion of magician acts of that time. There is also a real theatre/circus feel to the exhibition hall. The parallel is stark.
In a manner, let us consider Borden the ‘Tesla’ of the rivalry. Tellingly, it is the ‘key word’ to un-encrypting his journal. He has the talent and will, and is not afraid to get his hands dirty (or mangled) to change the world, a world he nevertheless is somewhat at odds with. Borden’s innovation into the culture of stage magic is a teleportation trick called ‘The Transported Man.’ Angier describes it as the greatest trick he has ever seen. Cutter corrects that the potential of the trick is apparent, even if it is almost too baffling for its early unsophisticated audiences. In the same manner that Tesla was always ahead of the market of ideas of his day.
Neither Cutter, nor Angier can figure out exactly how he accomplishes this trick.
Angier’s background is of privilege and wealth, and he is hiding - almost playing tourist - behind show-biz ambitions. In other words, he pursues the career because he wants to, not because he has to. Angier does not see through the old Asian magician’s facade, but Angier has the wealth and sophistication to to co-opt an act and make it a bit classier with his education and upbringing. And that is just what he does with Borden’s act. In the same way that Edison was constantly appropriating and refining (and patenting) existing market-ready technologies, Angier uses Cutter, his pretty assistant Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson) and the look-alike actor, Root; also played by Jackman with spectacular buck-teeth, to in effect steal Borden’s technology. Their take on the trick, ‘The New Transported Man,’ while a success, has limitations that make it somewhat unsustainable and impractical - the same way Direct Current was not ready to wire up the entire world without some awkward limitations. Besides, Angier cannot abide taking his bow below the stage, while his drunk-doppelgänger, Root, gets the applause.
In the same way that Tesla worked for Edison briefly for a time, Angier threatens and blackmails Borden into disclosing the secret of his success, and the answer leads him to the real Nicola Tesla. Angier heads to America where Tesla is electrified Boulder Colorodo as a demonstration of an alternating current grid with the electricity generated miles away. In a career capping performance from David Bowie, one the most perfect acts of casting ever is given one of the all time great cinema entrances to crackling electricity and demonstrates his own ‘magic trick,’ of science, and the inherent electrical conductivity of human body.
Angier hires Tesla build him a machine that will enable him to be both ‘the man on the stage, and the man under the stage.’ He (ominously) notes that nobody cares about the man under the stage, a great metaphor for the inner workings of technological systems.
Bowie’s Tesla is the lynchpin of of the film in the way his name is the code word for the Borden’s diary. He has many the best and most telling lines of dialogue. “Exact science, Mr. Angier, is not an exact science,” is a personal favourite. (As a working chemist, when I am not scribbling about cinema, this about sums my time in the laboratory up. Bravo, screenwriter!)
But another, meatier, monologue is more elucidating of the themes of the film: “You are familiar with the phrase, ‘Man’s reach exceeds his grasp?’ It’s a lie: Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve. Society only tolerates one change at a time. First time I tried to change the world, I was hailed as a visionary. The second time, I was asked politely to retire. Have you considered the cost of such a machine, Mr. Angier? Go Home. Forget this thing. I can recognize an obsession. No good will come of it. I have followed mine too long. I am their slave … and one day they will destroy me.” This is almost beat for beat the story of The Prestige. Angier eventually gets his hands dirty with a technology that is both an act of bravery and terror, he gets his desire, but at the cost of his humanity.
The actual secret to Borden’s trick eventually drives his wife to suicide (Rebecca Hall, both subtle and superb, in a role where she has too little agency, alas.) It drives his mistress away in disgust (Ms. Wenscombe, who leaves Borden after the Root debacle.) And, of course, it gets Borden executed in the process.
This secret also, amazingly, offers an act of redemption and humanity with his daughter. Borden’s final ‘Prestige,’ (you have to bring the disappeared man back) is the willful abandonment of his career and material pursuits (at some cost) to make a life with his daughter. And the magnificent turn-around double-fake (the films last and must subtle Prestige) of the film is in fact a subversion of the standard hero. This elucidates and shatters the notion that the returning man or object is the same. It is in fact, different, evolved.
While we think we are watching the ostensible good guy Angier try mightily to get answers about the death of his wife, and some relief in his own professional success. We are, in fact, watching his fall from grace. While we think we will see the punishment of Borden for tying an experimental knot in the name of stage-craft and innovation, we instead see his maturation to a family man of empathy and (hard learned) wisdom. Given, Borden does exact revenge for crimes committed against him (namely his own engineered execution), but it is a cathartic parting ways to the obsession, and nemesis, of Borden and Angier’s rivalry. Perhaps this is a happier ending than the actual Nicola Tesla eventually dying alone and penniless in a New York City hotel; exhausted and talking to pigeons.
This quite subtle ‘happy ending’ takes nothing away from the film’s darker edge: That social transitions brought about by rapidly advancing technology promise wonders and excitement, come at a great cost. One we are always almost always willing to pay without much thought. Welcome to the 21st century, ladies and gentlemen! I give you the smartphone! Cryptocurrency! And social media! Abracadabra!
(Try to be nice to each other.)
Some end notes that did not fit into the above essay: The Prestige is visually presented with all the spectacle of Wally Pfister’s entirely-in-camera cinematography. Hell, even actor Andy Serkis is shown as Andy Serkis (Telsa’s faithful assistant) not as some motion-cap collection of CGI! Looking at the magnificence of shooting real sets and doing the illusions practically, is a visual commitment that Christopher Nolan would later take even further with DP Hoyte van Hoytema on Dunkirk. There was a second magician movie, Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, that was released in 2006, starring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti, it is more of a mundane bodice ripper of a tale that supplants cheap CGI tricks for the illusions, and while it seemed to be a (tiny) bit more successful at the time, financially, it barely qualifies as a footnote today. The Prestige has aged exceedingly well, and remains Christopher Nolan’s best, most complex work.