#4 in my ranking of Christopher Nolan’s films.
A combination of John McTiernan, Brian DePalma, and Stanley Kubrick with Christopher Nolan’s signature brand of non-linear storytelling, The Prestige is a tale of obsession, narrative storytelling, and trickery. Having the advantage of over a decade and several viewings, I feel bad for those tasked with the assignment to write about this film upon its initial release. This is a very clever movie, and it can be hard to discern, on an initial viewing, if there’s more than the cleverness so clearly on display. I would say that yes, very firmly there is more than just the trickery.
It is the story of two magicians, Robert Angier (professionally known as The Great Danton, played by Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (“The Professor”, played by Christian Bale) who grow to hate each other, mostly Angier hating Borden. As young magicians, plants in the audience for a safely successful stage magician (played by the great magician Ricky Jay), Borden attempted a knot around Angier’s wife’s hands in a trick where she escapes from a water tank. The knot held too tightly, she couldn’t escape, and she died. Angier cannot move on after the death of his wife while Borden tries to push his guilt behind him and lead his own life.
The rivalry that develops between Angier and Borden dallies between the professional and the personal for years as they try to sabotage each other’s acts to become the greatest magician in London. Angier shoots off two of Borden’s fingers in a bullet catch trick gone wrong. Borden damages one of Angier’s apparatus that breaks a lady’s fingers during a show. Borden comes out with a new trick, The Transported Man, that is so real that Angier, who watches in disguise, is utterly convinced that Borden’s method cannot be a simple explanation, using a double. Following a set of clues, Angier ends up in Colorado trying to get an audience with Nikola Tesla, the famed inventor, and to get him to build the machine that Angier is convinced Tesla built for Borden.
As I wrote earlier, this movie is exceedingly clever. It sets up a lot of elements that all end up playing their parts in the film’s third act. From Tesla’s machine, to Borden’s mysterious ingénieur Fallon, to even the very specific ways that Bale plays certain scenes, everything acts as a cog to the mysterious machine that Nolan has adapted from the Christopher Priest novel. Being a Christopher Nolan film, it’s almost needless to say that these pieces come together really well by the end (one of the sources of trust that I have for the logic of Tenet working), but just being a clever machine is of limited value (one of the sources of my more muted reaction to Tenet).
Nolan provides that through his two main characters, but they’re a surprisingly difficult pair. Obsession is not an endearing quality we like to see in the people we know, and watching these two men cast aside the remnants of their personal connections or frustratingly deal with those still in their lives can be a hard watch. Since this is part of the emotional core of the film, that presents a certain challenge to the audience. Now, I have no problem with that in general, but there’s a certain element of seemingly expected emotional connection when both men are supposed to be protagonists, and Borden himself seems so inconsistent. This is one advantage that Nolan has in his intricate, “need to see it again”, approach to storytelling. Borden’s seemingly erratic behavior comes into greater focus, but repeat viewings end up turning into a bit of a guessing game as you try to figure out which side of Borden is in which scene. There’s one side of Borden that deserves the most sympathy who would have probably been the protagonist in a more straight-forward telling of the story.
I’m not sure it’s the difficultness of the characters that really bothers me, but their opaqueness. There’s an intentional effort to keep the audience from getting to know them, especially Borden, in favor of the mystery they’re surrounded by. I consider a particular side of Borden to be the emotional core of the film (as evidenced by the movie’s final images with his daughter), so that Borden’s nature is also part of the mystery undermines some of the finale’s emotional impact.
Now, having said that, the movie’s far from emotionally dead. The emotional impact of Borden’s end could have been stronger, but it still ends up strong enough to work. Nolan’s approach to the material focuses elsewhere, and that’s on the story’s underlying questions on storytelling. The idea that audiences know that what they’re seeing is all fake, but if you can fool them, even only for a second, then you’ve given them what they want. That all this is for the looks on the audience’s faces (ironic since most of the faces will be hidden from Nolan as opposed to the live audience for the illusionists). What he’s self-consciously doing, and laying out by the end, is that for all the artifice around the story, there’s still a core promise between the artist and the audience. For all the trickery in the world, the artist still needs to bring the story back around to a human element, to make that which disappeared inexplicably reappear. This is where Borden’s story that works well enough really has its impact and where I wish it had a bit more, but I’m not sure how Nolan might have reorganized this story to clarify Borden while also maintaining the elaborate mystery that drives the central point.
So, I do kind of love this movie. It’s really well made. Hugh Jackman is very good as Angier, and Christian Bale is solid as Borden along with a very good supporting cast, in particular Rebecca Hall as Borden’s long-suffering wife Sarah, Michael Caine as Angier’s ingénieur, and David Bowie as the enigmatic but composed Tesla. The story is obviously a twisting adventure that uses point of view stringently and jumping timelines with confidence and skill. I just have this wish that the emotional punch of the movie’s final moments was stronger.