by Josie Kafka
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?)