The Prestige

“You want to be fooled.”

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s third big-budget film, The Prestige is a story of duplicity and duplication, tricks and tall tales. Like Memento and Inception, it is also a puzzle narrative, with clues to the various illusions and truths promoted by the two main characters scattered about like so many top hats.

Apprentice magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) had a tense but workable relationship until Borden’s hubris accidentally (we think) leads to the death of Angier’s wife. What had been a healthy rivalry becomes a constant game of one-upmanship as both men attempt to outdo one another in magic and in revenge.

Borden, the superior technician, finds happiness with a wife and child, and he begins to have financial success with a trick called “The Transported Man,” in which he goes through a door and emerges on the other side of the stage. Angier, the better showman, has successes and setbacks of his own, but he never gives up on his quest for vengeance, which transforms from avenging his wife’s death to wanting to outdo Borden’s famous trick even if he has to rely on a drunken double to do it.

Set at the turn of the twentieth century, The Prestige is a story constantly on the brink. The smog that surrounds London and lends the movie a gritty Dickensian air contrasts with the sharp blasts of electricity promoted by Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie, which is awesome). The rude mechanical devices invented by Michael Caine’s engineer belong firmly in the age of industry; the wizardry that Angier seeks seems to lie with the technology just being developed by men like Tesla and Edison.

The doubleness of the setting and era mimics the theme of doubling that runs throughout the film. The first half of the movie is told through flashbacks (Angier reads Borden’s journal and we see the events as he reads them; Borden in turn read Angier’s journal) and flashforwards (we know from the film’s outset that Borden will be accused of murdering Angier). After various double-crosses are revealed, the film turns into a more straightforward narrative, with Borden’s and Angier’s actions interlaced until the climatic final showdown.

Michael Caine’s opening narration emphasizes the three parts of a magic trick: the pledge, in which we are shown something ordinary (a woman!); the turn, in which the ordinary becomes extraordinary (sawed in half!); and the prestige, in which ordinariness is resumed but wonder remains (she’s okay!). Caine doesn’t say—but the film implies—a fourth part, in which the audience figures out what has happened, or fails to do so.

But life shouldn’t be structured like a trick, and that is something that both Borden and Angier seem to have difficulty grasping. Both men are willing to make sacrifices (of themselves, of others) to achieve the best trick, but this film raises the question of whether that achievement is truly worth “the cost,” as Tesla refers to it: how much do we give up for art? How much of art is just pride and a desire to out-do someone else?

The Prestige lingers on those questions in a haunting way that deepens the significance of its puzzling qualities, which are many. As with any non-Batman Nolan film, there are various theories about what happened when, at whose instigation, and whether there is a gaping plothole (the general consensus) or a deeper trick at work (my opinion). But what makes this film more riveting than either Memento or Inception is the way in which it, like a good trick, is more than the sum of its pledge, turn, and prestige. This is ultimately a human story: not just narrative legerdemain, but rather the wizardry of artful and truthful portrayals of people in crisis.

Warning: although this review is light on spoilers, please be advised that the comments below spoil major plot points.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


migmit said...

What plot hole?

J.D. Balthazar said...

I saw this one in the theater, along with the other magic movie at the time The Illusionist starting Edward Norton (which was released a month earlier) and I frequently confuse the two. This was of course before I really cared much about Nolan as a film-maker.

I'd seen Memento and the first Batman, but this was the film he did between Begins and The Dark Knight, so I was a little pissed at him when I went in to see it.

All I remember was that the resolution was VERY dark and twisted. Or was that the other film? Either way, at some point I should probably watch all of Nolan's films again, and probably go into an existential spiral where I might never be able to trust reality again.

Great review though, I'm really looking forward to revisiting this film with your ideas in mind as I watch it.

Rohan said...

Like J.D. I remember seeing this at about the same time as The Illusionist.

I remember disliking this movie a great deal for one reason: a movie about magicians should not contain real magic, and this one did. To me, that negates the entire point of stage magic.

I preferred The Illusionist for that reason. As well, the introduction of the villain in The Illusionist was outstanding. So much conveyed in so little time.

Josie Kafka said...

I added a warning to the review about spoilers, so this comment thread just became fair game for any spoilers at all.

Migmit, a few reviews I read seemed troubled by the idea of how Angier knew for certain that Borden would sneak backstage on the last night. Roger Ebert felt that was an unsatisfying "prestige," and another reviewer (whose link I have lost) thought the plot hole represented a deeper significance, a statement about the illusory nature of storytelling.

I disagree. I think Cutter and "Fallon" worked together, conspiring against Angier and Borden to some degree by the end. They were running their own trick with the goal of restoring the daughter to "Fallon" and giving Angier some comeuppance.

It makes sense thematically, too, for two reasons:

1. Both Cutter and Olivia switch between Borden and Angier throughout the film.

2. Angier and his doubles were locked in regular battle/sacrifice. Why not Borden and "Fallon" (or Borden and Borden, to be more precise)?

Josie Kafka said...

Rohan and JD, I remembered not liking this movie, but I wanted to watch it again to see if my original impression was correct. I don't know what I was doing wrong the first time, but I changed my mind completely for this rewatch.

migmit said...

> how Angier knew for certain that Borden would sneak backstage on the last night.

Erm... that's kinda obvious, isn't it?

I mean, how could Borden NOT sneak backstage? Of course, it could be some other night, but Angier was doing the same thing over and over again, just waiting for Borden to fall into the trap, that's all. As soon as he noticed that — boom. In fact, on the last night he could even stop paying attention — if Borden didn't sneak backstage before, he would surely do that now.

*** SPOILERS ***

And how could "Fallon" work against Borden, if the they constantly switched? What, Borden becomes Fallon and suddenly begins working against his former self, while the current Borden forgets that, while being Fallon, he conspired with Cutter?

Josie Kafka said...

Erm... that's kinda obvious, isn't it?

I didn't strike me as a huge plot hole, but others brought it up. The question seems to be "How could he be certain enough of what was going on below stage that he refused to appear at the back of the theater?" But, again, this is not my argument. I'm saying that he could be certain because it was a plan, not just a hunch.

In fact, on the last night he could even stop paying attention.

We see his looking like he's not paying attention in a previous show.

And how could "Fallon" work against Borden, if the they constantly switched? What, Borden becomes Fallon and suddenly begins working against his former self, while the current Borden forgets that, while being Fallon, he conspired with Cutter?

That's not quite what I'm arguing. (For sake of clarity, let's call the twin in prison "Borden" and the twin not in prison "Fallon.")

Borden tells Angier that each twin loved one woman. "Fallon" loved the wife, which I assume means he had an attachment to the daughter. It is implied that "Fallon" is the father of the daughter ("We have to tell Fallon" says the twin who is not in love with the wife when she informs him of her pregnancy). I think we can both agree that the twins had different interior lives even as their exterior lives were interchangeable, right?

My argument is that the twin I'm calling "Fallon" worked without Borden's knowledge to trap Borden. That is why Cutter didn't bat an eye when he passed Fallon going into the theater to confront Angier. That is why Cutter was taking care of the daughter until Fallon could pick her up in the final scene.

I'm confident in my argument because of Cutter's "You want to be fooled" narration that bookends the film, and because of the Nolans' storytelling habits. The idea of one last trick, one last misdirection, perpetrated against a man who only lives half a life by the man who lives the other half of the life: that's a very Nolanesque theme. If this were a movie by other people, I wouldn't wonder if there were more to it. Since it's a movie by the Nolans, I was certain there was more to it, so I looked, and asked "what could be 'fooling' me this time?" and discovered a solid answer that makes sense within the logic of the film and what we know of its creators.

Nick said...

Really interesting theory you have there about Fallon working against Borden. I generally think that 'Fallon' only began cooperating with Cutter after Cutter finds out that Angier faked his death, but I think your theory's fairly interesting (and certainly something I haven't come across before).

Lots of people seem either disapproving of Tesla's machine, or the twist at the end. I think that in a very meta sense, that just serves to illustrate the line that just about everyone repeats when mentioning this movie: 'You want to be fooled'. Most magic tricks don't impress you when you discover how they're done, because while the simplicity of it is beautiful, you've also built a much more elaborate mystery in your mind. The film as a whole deconstructs this notion by making its own reveals and twists an example of this - the explanations are simple and sufficiently explain the mysteries.

In particular, I think Tesla's machine serves another purpose. Rohan calls it 'magic' and so do many characters, despite the fact that it was created by a scientific figure rather than say someone of the occult. To me this ties in to Clarke's third law: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'.

It's interesting how Tesla's technology is passed off as 'magic' on stage to the audience - but to the magicians, it is 'real magic' (Angier and that theater owner refers to it that way) and there are references to Tesla being a 'wizard' as well. Note also how magic tricks in general are based on technology or science. I can see how it comes off as a cheat, but I think this is what the movie was getting at - that on the one hand you have stage magic, which we think of as technology because we already understand it, and on the other we have 'real magic' - in reality just technology that's beyond our current understanding.

What I love about this film is that these two points I mention are just two out of so many other themes that the movie deals with so fantastically, and with such a great narrative structure. It's still one of my favourite of Nolan's films, and perhaps the most thematically rich.


As for the supposed 'plot hole', I agree with migmit: it isn't one at all. Angier simply does the trick every night until Borden decides to get on stage. Every night he falls into the tank and dies anyway, and his clone emerges from the stage independently. So when Borden finally comes along, the Angier in stage dies as usual; the only thing that changes is that the clone deliberately stays hidden, to make it look like the trick failed. And since we know both the clone and the original have the same experience and memory (up until the cloning moment) the clone would of course know what to do.

Josie Kafka said...

Nick, great comment!

I agree that this is the most "thematically rich" of the Nolans' films. It got me wondering about Insomnia, which is a Christopher Nolan film that Jonathan Nolan doesn't seem to have had much to do with. I remember not liking it, but that is how I felt about The Prestige, too.

Nick said...

Ah, I'll admit I'm not crazy about Insomnia - perhaps because for a Nolan film, it's pretty straightforward - BUT the setting and the cast (Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, Robin Williams) make it an interesting enough watch if you have the time. Robin Williams is *amazing* in this and isn't at all like Robin Williams, and the interplay between him and Pacino (following from an interesting turn in the plot halfway) makes it a pretty interesting watch. I definitely wasn't big on it when I was younger but watching it again I was more appreciative, so maybe you should give it another go!