Everyone has heard that a good magician never reveals a secret. In The Prestige, a young enthusiast learns from an old hand the reason for this rule. “No one respects you for a secret, no matter how good it is,” the magician explains. “It’s what you can do with the secret that they respect you for.”
Ah, but it’s different at the movies. For a filmmaker, a good secret revealed in the right way at the right moment can be the highlight of the act. Like a magician, the filmmaker can use misdirection to get the audience looking the other way, in order to make the climax as surprising as possible. But where the magician wants to leave the audience mystified, the filmmaker seeks to pull all the pieces together.
Adapted by director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Insomnia) and his brother Jonathan from the Christopher Priest novel, The Prestige has a number of secrets, cleverly wrought and carefully structured in an escalating series of dramatic revelations that may need multiple viewings to fully unravel. Tightly plotted and thematically well-crafted, the film offers converging lessons regarding seemingly harmless illusions that belie grim realities, charades that must be maintained off the stage as well as on, and the hazards of an all-important secret confederate, all coming together in climactic plot twists both haunting and unsettling.
At the same time, underlying the whole story is a central conceit that — while undeniably integral to the tale the film has to tell — may seem somewhat jarring amid the film’s 19th-century trappings of escape-artist water tanks, collapsible bird cages, hidden trapdoors, and the like. Granted its premise, The Prestige is ruthlessly bold and clever regarding the implications and consequences for its antagonists, rival London magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). The premise, though, is a lot to swallow.
Coming a couple of months after the similarly themed The Illusionist, The Prestige is the year’s second Victorian-era stage-magic thriller centering on a deadly competition between a magician and his rival. The Illusionist pitted magician Edward Norton against a prince played by Rufus Sewell; The Prestige features a contest of peers, if not equals, that offers more opportunity for ever-mounting one-up-manship and direct rivalry.
The similarities to The Illusionist don’t stop there. In both films, there is a woman caught between the two men, a tragic turn of events, and ultimately a question of real magic as the movie toys with life and death. Both feature strong casts and bring outstanding production values to the period setting; both also rely on expert magician and magic consultant Ricky Jay for stage cred in the performance of the magic.
Both films also emulate the three-part structure of a magic trick as outlined by Cutter in an opening voiceover. In old-school magic parlance, the three acts are called the Pledge, the Turn, and The Prestige. The Pledge offers the audience assurances that nothing funny is going on: Please shuffle the cards yourself; nothing up my sleeve, etc. The Turn is the moment when something extraordinary happens: And the hankerchief is gone! The third act, The Prestige, seals the deal: the vanished object reappears in a spectator’s pocket, say. “It’s not enough to make something disappear,” Cutter explains. “You have to bring it back.”
Beneath the surface similarities, though, the two films have very different hearts. The Illusionist is essentially a rationalized fairy tale with a hero, a villain, a princess, and true love. The Prestige — like Nolan’s earlier puzzle movie, the celebrated Memento — is a brilliantly interconnected but chilly mechanism in which each element is a carefully integrated part of the whole, but the effect of the whole is somewhat alienating.
As with Memento, the story is set in motion when a protagonist suffers a crushing tragedy, leading to an increasingly destructive vendetta against a character who may or may not be responsible.
In the beginning, Angier and Borden are colleagues in the London magic scene, incognito audience “plants” in a magic act who “volunteer” every night until a fateful performance that closes the show and leaves the former partners estranged.
In almost every way, the two men are opposites: Angier is upper-class, poised, more a gifted showman than an inspired illusionist; Borden, a Cockney, is working-class and unpolished, but with a deep affinity for the art that eludes his rival. Their rivalry takes various forms: direct acts of revenge and sabotage, efforts to upstage one another’s careers, elaborate coded messages taunting one another, even affairs with the same woman, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), who acts as assistant and double agent to both men.
Angier’s hatred for Borden over their shared history deepens into envy and resentment over the latter’s apparent domestic happiness; later, discovering that Borden isn’t really the settled family man he seems to be, Angier despises his rival even more.
Is Borden too much in love with magic to give himself completely to his wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall)? Or is the problem more complicated than that? Sarah quizzically eyes her husband when he tells her he loves her. “Not today,” she says with resigned acceptance. She can always tell: Some days, she’s convinced he loves her more than magic; other days it’s the other way around. She seems willing to live with this part-time love, though it hurts even on the good days, when he tells her he loves her and means it: “It makes it that much harder when you don’t.”
Most infuriatingly to Angier, Borden develops an astounding trick that no one can explain or duplicate. Called “The Transported Man,” the effect is so simple that audiences are almost too bewildered to know how to respond. Angier, of course, could dress it up better — if he could do it at all.
Cutter (Michael Caine), a veteran ingeneur or designer of illusions with whom both rivals work at various times, swears there’s no way to do the trick without a body double — but Angier would stake his life that it’s the same man. Eventually, with Cutter’s help, Angier debuts a slicker version of “The Transported Man,” but the effect is less than satisfactory, especially to Angier himself. Increasingly obsessed with learning Borden’s secrets, Borden eventually puts up his assistant and mistress Olivia to go to work for Borden in order to steal his secrets.
Somewhat oddly juxtaposed with all this, yet inseparable from it, is a subplot involving a historical figure, American scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), an important inventor and physicist whose own rivalry with an accomplished peer, Thomas Alva Edison, is alluded to in the film. (Edison championed direct current, but Tesla’s alternating current standard was superior, and won out.)
Angier and Borden each make pilgrimages to Tesla’s Colorado Springs workshop to petition the scientist to build an extraordinary machine for their magic acts. It is here that the film threatens to break down: Tesla’s reputation as a “wizard” of science notwithstanding, his presence in the film, and the machine he builds, isn’t successfully integrated into the fabric of the story.
In spite of this incongruity, Nolan makes it pay off, in spades. The device itself doesn’t fit into the world of the story, but what the characters do with it does. It’s a story flaw, but a flaw that has been turned to advantage, like a crack in a marble slab that the sculptor somehow finds a way to make serve the statue.
If only the characters themselves were more interesting, or even more likable. If only the story had something decent at its center, rather than being a tightly wound Möbius strip, with a dark side that just keeps going, and has no other side.
A moody, atmospheric fairy tale, The Illusionist is the story of one illusionist — Eisenheim, a fictional turn-of-the-last-century magician — being told by another, writer-director Neil Burger ( Interview with the Assassin).
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.