Christopher Nolan revisited: The Prestige (2006)

The Prestige
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Between his first two Batman movies, Christopher Nolan made a film that many adore: here’s our look at The Prestige.

Spoilers lie ahead for The Prestige. Don’t read this before you’ve seen the movie….!

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Perhaps one of the reasons many people might cite The Prestige as Christopher Nolan’s best movie, even almost 20 years on, is because it distills everything he seeks to be as a filmmaker into a two-hour film. It is one big illusion.

I’m going to assume you’ve seen The Prestige, indeed perhaps more than once, if you’re reading this piece, because the essence of the trick is naturally key to the analysis. We are subject to one great big Pledge, Turn and Prestige – to quote Michael Caine’s Cutter in describing the key to a successful piece of magic – within the very structure of Nolan and his brother Jonathan’s script, adapting Christopher Priest’s equally tricksy 1995 novel. The clues are there. We are just directed to look the other way.

“Theatricality and deception are powerful agents to the unintitated” states Bane, the villain of The Dark Knight Rises, but he could be talking about anyone watching a Nolan film. He been doing this in every film he has released before The Prestige, just in different respects, be it Memento’s deliberate temporal disorientation, Insomnia’s somnambulist descent or Batman Begins tethering the origin of the Bat to the League of Shadows, ninja steeped in the ways of deception. Nolan is fascinated by the trick and as Christian Bale’s Alfred Borden states here: “The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.”

He once discussed this with Empire:

I think there are huge similarities between what magicians did back then and what filmmakers do now. Just think of their relationship with the audience. Although there’s a key misconception there: we think of magicians as people who try and convince us they have supernatural powers. But they don’t. There’s a line which Hugh’s character has in the film, where he says: ‘If people thought what I do on stage was real, they wouldn’t applaud, they’d scream.’ Like cutting a woman in half. And that to me is very connected with the difference between fiction and reality in cinema. Even though as a filmmaker or as a magician you try to convince an audience of the reality of something, it’s within the greater context of audience suspension of disbelief. And that’s where the entertainment comes from.

Hence why the core obsession of both Borden and his magician rival in The Prestige, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), is about who reappears at the end of the trick.

As Angier says: “No one cares about the man in the box, the man who disappears.”

It’s not about the cause, it’s the effect. It’s the showmanship. It’s no coincidence Jackman goes on to make The Greatest Showman (a much inferior film) in the same time period, because that’s what Angier and Borden seek to be, just as Nolan does. His film have a deceptive intelligence, which people often mistake for artifice, but he believes primarily in the ‘prestige’ more than the pledge. He understands the audience will give way to the trick.

As Cutter famously opens and closes the film by saying “Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.”

The Prestige

The Victorian world is a good fit for a showman like Nolan. He has discussed how he didn’t want to replicate period vintage drama in the late 1800s and rather evoke a world on the cusp of dramatic technological and social change, hence why The Prestige contains fairly naturalistic dialogue, even when dabbling in high society, a world it straddles.

Angier is the haughtier of the two between he and Borden, who moves from London penury to a more affluent world. But Angier best understands how to deliver a ‘prestige’ in a world of science fairs, magic shows, grand theatres and the Oz-style idea of the man behind the curtain.

Even Cutter recognises Borden as the greater magician (though he applies Occam’s Razor to see through his greatest trick early on), but a man with no idea how to make the audience wonder in an age where they feel the power of such illusion.

What elevates The Prestige, for me, is the use of Nikola Tesla. I do find David Bowie’s casting strange (even stranger, Nolan had him in mind from day one), his delivery strangely clipped and wooden, but Tesla absolutely epitomises the dichotomy of science and magic happening at the turn (there’s that word again) of the 20th century.

Nolan points out in a commentary that even today, some of Tesla’s designs remain enigmatic and little understood, and much like Borden he was able to create wonders with little awareness of how to present them. His coils at the heart of the fictional Transformed Man ‘trick’ move Angier from illusionist to actual wizard, all thanks to technology and science he doesn’t understand. In that sense, he’s less a magician, more of a con man.

Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Memento
Previously: Revisiting Chistopher Nolan’s Insomnia
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins

Tesla, conversely, speaks to a recurring idea that Nolan has chosen recently with Oppenheimer to focus on – the man who creates something he fears, or cannot control.

The Dark Knight Rises gives us a more ancillary version in Dr. Pavel, creator of a portable nuclear device, but The Prestige has Tesla implore Angier to destroy the Transformed Man machine he built for him (as a slave to emerging capitalism). “Drop it to the bottom of the deepest ocean. Such thing will only bring you misery.” Tesla is hounded out of Colorado by locals who fear his power, as indeed Tesla seems to do himself. This idea clearly fascinates Nolan and it suggests the line between science and magic is paper thin, with men such as Angier & Borden cautionary tales.

In the end, though Borden fools everyone with his twin double and poses some sizeable moral questions about two men sharing one life, it’s Angier who pushes himself further in order to be the equal of a man he knows, truly, to be more gifted than him. The ethical and philosophical considerations Nolan poses with the Transformed Man are fascinating, and left largely to our own thought after the movies. Angier literally dies for his ‘prestige’, on multiple occasions.

Is it therefore the same Angier or someone new? It cuts to the identical question posed of the two Borden’s, simply illuminated in science-fiction terms. It is much like the transporter in Star Trek, that takes apart a human body in the matter stream to reconstitute them elsewhere. Do they die and are they reborn? Nolan leaves us asking a similar question.

Dying for one’s art seems core to The Prestige, and certainly Nolan’s directorial philosophy. He feels like a creative who constantly wants to push what he deems possible, exploring rabbit holes and greater psychological and philosophical depths.

Falling, again, is a key visual metaphor, as it was in Batman Begins with Bruce and the well, as it will be in Inception as Cobb and those around him plunge further into the dreaming depths, as it was indeed on a metaphorical level with Dormer in Insomnia. Angier plummeting repeatedly into the tank, or plunging down from the stage onto the bag, parallels the thematic forces at work in the screenplay.

The Prestige

The Prestige really feels the first Nolan film in which his narrative style begins to cement and pay off. After playing with our perception of time in Memento, here for the first time he and his brother construct a non-linear structure, as we flip back in time to explore how Angier died and Borden ended up in jail, yet moves back to the present to add further disorientation at points.

The editing style he has employed, of sequences that flow into each other and construct – a technique he really harnesses over his next three films – is apparent in The Prestige and it makes for compelling storytelling. You feel immersed in the illusion, not sure who to trust or even if what you’re seeing is real, all while Nolan draws you into Borden & Angier’s world; a haunting Victorian space bordering on spiritualism and the glimpse of another set of possibilities in terms of reality.

The only place the film perhaps falls down is the portrayal of the women involved. Nolan is always keen to invest his grand narratives in the personal, so he devotes time to Borden’s troubled marriage to Sarah (Rebecca Hall), but she is able to do little but groan at Borden’s intellect and brilliance. She would not pass the Bechdel test. Piper Perabo, as Angier’s wife, is quickly fridged.

At least Scarlett Johansson’s plucky assistant Olivia is complicit in her own lack of agency, played between Borden & Angier’s loyalties, but while sporting a wince-inducing British accent she has little to do beyond serving as eye candy. Nolan basking in the power of Bale and Jackman’s performances leaves them all behind. Were their journey, and the trappings of The Prestige less involving, it would be a much greater issue.

What you see with The Prestige is a filmmaker building on the confidence successfully handling a major blockbuster with an iconic hero gave him, and putting his stamp on cinema with an acutely unique style. He makes us want his trickery, his bag of illusions. And by the end of this, what we wanted most of all was to see where he would take Batman next. Little did we realise he would make what could be the greatest movie in comic-book cinema history in doing so.

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