July 2024

The Prestige (2006)

DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan


Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Andy Serkis, Piper Perabo


Director Christopher Nolan and his brother, screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, share not only obvious intelligence, but a fondness for complex plotlines. Their joint project, Memento, ran backwards from the end to the beginning, and while The Prestige, an adaptation of the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest, isn’t quite as much of an ultimate mind-bender, it’s not too far behind. The chronological jumps forward and backwards in time, the details that have significance far down the road, and a series of climactic twists and revelations ensure this is not a film where a trip to the restroom is advisable. An investment of the audience’s attention is required.

The Prestige opens with the trial of magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), for the death of his rival, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), apparently by sabotaging one of his tricks during a show. With this as our starting point, we jump back to various points in the lives of both men. Angier and Borden begin as assistants to a magician (real-life magician Ricky Jay), but when an apparent mistake by Borden causes the death of Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo), Angier becomes consumed by a relentless mission to beat Borden at his own game. The two’s rivalry becomes bitter and obsessed, not only constantly attempting to one-up each other onstage, but resorting to sabotage and possibly even physical violence. When Borden debuts his greatest trick, Angier travels to Colorado to visit scientist Nikola Tesla (a historical figure, played by David Bowie), who has constructed a machine that Angier is convinced is the answer to Borden’s seemingly impossible feat. Meanwhile, Borden pushes his wife (Rebecca Hall) away with his cold behavior, and Angier falls in love with his assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), who is sent to spy on and later defects to Borden. In addition to Olivia, the two men are also connected by a trick designer, Cutter (Michael Caine), who begins as a friend to both.

The Prestige is a movie that appeals much more to the brain than the heart. This is part of what separates it from the same year’s other magician-themed movie, The Illusionist. The Illusionist was warmer and more accessible, but The Prestige is more frigid and vastly more complex. The tone is cold and unemotional, with neither Angier nor Borden generally particularly sympathetic characters. Technically, it’s handsomely-crafted. The period details and atmosphere of Victorian London are meticulously rendered, and some of the most fascinating little moments are the revelations of a few of the magicians’ tricks. Nolan plays his hand with the deftness of a master magician, sprinkling small hints of the truth throughout. The details to watch out for (some of which must be picked up over multiple viewings) are bountiful.  Borden’s silent, enigmatic assistant, Fallon. The often-mentioned but unseen Lord Cadlow. Minor conversational bits to listen for, remember, and learn the significance of much later. Everything about The Prestige cannot be absorbed in a single viewing. The film is too complex and multi-layered not to warrant or even necessitate a replay. Those who think the movie opening with Borden’s trial for Angier’s death reveals too much too quickly will realize it has revealed very little before the end credits roll. Like the best magic shows, The Prestige is a deviously calculating bit of misdirection. No matter how close attention you pay (the film opens cheekily, with a Bale voiceover asking ‘are you watching closely?’), you can’t escape getting tripped up by the Nolans’ tangles and snares. There are simply too many of them to avoid.

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are in top form as two fanatically ambitious magicians whose rivalry develops into an all-consuming, dangerous obsession that threatens to destroy both of men and drags unfortunate souls along in their wake. It is intriguing to note the contrast between Angier and Borden. Angier is the consummate showman, slick, polished, debonair. He does nothing extraordinary or unique, but reliably entertains his audience in a well-honed routine. Borden is brash, unpolished, and unpredictable, but he does things that wow people in a way Angier cannot achieve. He is blessed/cursed with the touch of genius that Angier, try obsessively as he might, can never quite grasp. Both we, and Angier, recognize that while Angier has more polish, Borden has more talent.  Throughout most of the film, the vengeance-driven Angier draws our sympathy more than the cold, aloof Borden, but by the end we are forced to reevaluate which man has sacrificed more of his humanity. In the supporting cast, Michael Caine is his usual delightful self, and Scarlett Johansson is wasted in a one-dimensional role that seems it could have been excised while changing little fundamental about the movie (at least Johansson’s English accent sounds convincing). Rebecca Hall as Borden’s wife is the character we feel the most pity for, and despite being better-known as a singer than for his occasional acting roles, David Bowie acquits himself nicely in basically a cameo as real-life genius inventor Tesla, with The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum, Andy Serkis, as his assistant.

While it’s almost impossible not to be appreciative and entertained by the masterful filmmaking and story-weaving on hand, The Prestige has a coolness and an emotional remoteness (much like that of star Christian Bale) that makes it hard to be emotionally invested, even if the brain is fully engaged. How much The Prestige satisfies you also depends on how easily you accept the slightly sci-fi turn in the third act, and whether or not you feel cheated by its inclusion. The saying that revenge is a dish best served cold is upheld here, but precisely who really comes out on top isn’t clear until the last minutes. The film is impressively handsomely-mounted, but studying the period detail too closely risks missing something. Christopher Nolan, who has now helmed everything from an amnesiac mind-bender (Memento), to a magician-themed mystery (The Prestige), to the triumphant resurrection of the onscreen Batman (Batman Begins) to arguably the greatest and most epic comic book superhero movie ever made (The Dark Knight), brings his proven cinematic master craftsmanship to weave a tangled web that draws us inexorably in.