There’s an argument to be made that The Prestige is Christopher Nolan’s finest film. A Victorian-era tale of revenge and rivalry between two magicians, Nolan’s adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel stars Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, and Michael Caine.
The Prestige primarily revolves around one magician’s attempt to learn the secret behind the other’s greatest trick. Told as flashbacks within flashbacks, we first meet Alfred Borden (Bale), imprisoned for murder and reading the journal of Robert Angier (Jackman). The flashbacks unfold from there, but when Angier begins to read Borden’s own journal, we go even further back, all the way to the beginning of the tale.
Angier is an obsessive man, desperate to become the greater magician and driven by the pain of a lost lover. It’s a loss that Angier blames Borden for and it instigates two hours of tension in which the machinations of each character escalate and become more dangerous as their rivalry becomes deadlier. Nolan often telegraphs quite blatantly the events to come through dialogue and heavy foreshadowing, in a film that’s almost entirely made up of setups and payoffs. Whether its Borden’s consistent hints at a double life as he tells his wife he loves her (to which she’ll either believe him, or recite to him, “not today”), or Cutter’s (Caine) forbidding Borden from tying a particular knot that may have fatal consequences; every line of dialogue has a ripple effect.
The personalities of both lead characters clash beautifully against one another. Angier is, at least in the early part of the film, the more boyish and free-spirited of the two, while Borden is clearly the more naturally talented magician. Angier is the showman while Borden is completely dedicated to the art. Both characters share about an equal amount of screen time, though Borden is appropriately the protagonist; we’re introduced to him first, in prison. Instantly we’re forced to sympathize with him, though it’s ambiguous as to whether he’s a man who deserves it. While both characters are antagonistic, Borden is more reactive while Angier is the provoker. Angier’s initial loss is tragic, but the losses that follow for him are nearly always of his own making.
As much as it’s a tale of rivalry and revenge, The Prestige is also about secrets and sacrifice and the slow death of traditional magic in the face of technological advancement. When Angier goes to Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and asks him to build him a machine that would help him rise to greater fame than his rival, it results in the first time we see Borden a little unhinged and desperate. Borden never made things entirely personal, not after the guilt he experiences earlier on, but Angier takes things off the stage and puts lives at risk. Rebecca Hall plays Sarah Borden, Alfred’s wife and a woman who can’t come to terms with and accept the secretive lifestyle her husband lives. Scarlett Johansson as Olivia is another example that the women are victims of Angier and Borden’s life-long feud.
The journals of the two characters act as powerful framing devices and lead to major respective reveals. In fact, the final third of the film is consistently throwing revealing new information at us, changing the way we see the story and its characters. It’s a literal, structural representation of the literary rules of magic. The first act is the pledge, the second the turn, whilst the final act brings everything back with the prestige. The answers aren’t quite as apparent as in the film’s actual representation of the magic trick. Again, much like Memento, there are several hints throughout the film that things aren’t quite what they seem, making for a rewarding re-watch. Jonathan Nolan shares a screenplay credit with his brother, and it’s the second and last (so far) of Nolan’s films to be a straight adaptation. It was in pre-production for five years, placed on the back-burner when Batman Begins was fast-tracked, and eventually reached theaters in 2006.
The film has an addictive atmosphere and quite an exhaustive pace to it. Things never really slow down as it moves briskly through the most notable moments in the duo’s rivalry. The key here is quite obviously through its structure. Had it been told linearly, from when the two magicians were still youthful and ignorant, and carried us through to that prison cell, it would not have wielded any significant power over its audience. So much of the tension would be lost and the entire pace slowed to a crawl.
Cutter narrates the beginning and the end of the film and we’re taken backstage almost instantly to see behind the scenes. This is a misdirect. It suggests that we’ll be in on all of the secrets so that when Nolan pulls the rug out from beneath us it’s startling, almost a betrayal in and of itself. The Prestige is perhaps his greatest marriage of structure and narrative. The entire film, a magic trick. After several viewings there’s still something new and magical to be found beneath the surface.
Film ’89 Verdict – 9/10