The Prestige (2006) Director: Christopher Nolan
“Are you watching closely?”
Like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the Nolan brothers deliver a masterfully deceptive illusion in their 2006 film The Prestige. The film is an epic examination and meta-commentary on the art of film-making as all framing and misdirection –are we paying attention? All the mysteries in The Prestige are in fact hiding in plain sight. Very loosely based on a 1995 novel of the same name by Christopher Priest, the film is told in fragmented, anti-chronological order not unlike other Christopher Nolan films —Memento or Dunkirk. The Prestige was made in between Nolan’s classic Batman movies: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
Ostensibly The Prestige is about two rival magicians in late 19th century London who battle one another in competition to perform a greater illusion. One is Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), a man obsessed with the idea of “real magic” and unsatisfied with ordinary or unimpressive explanations of trickery. However as with all other things in this film, people are not truly as they seem. In truth, we later learn Angier is actually named Lord Caldlow, a wealthy aristocrat. He assumes the persona of Angier along with his wife and pairs up with Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), a lower-class realist who is obsessed with the methods employed by magicians as well as the lengths they go in order to protect the secrets –most notably in the case of a Chinese magician who feigns being crippled in order to maintain his ruse (making a fishbowl appear seemingly out of nowhere). Borden’s diary entry says the two men were never trying to harm anyone (though we later learn he was referring to someone else). At any rate, Angier and Borden agree to perform a series of magic shows under the direction of an old-time stage magician and engineer John Cutter (Michael Caine). In my view, Cutter is the most important character in the film, not least of which because his very name “Cutter” is an allusion to the film-editing process, but also he is the chief narrator of The Prestige with his commentary bookending the movie. He introduces us to the notion of misdirection and the three act magic trick: 1) The Pledge, in which the magician shows us something ordinary 2) The Turn, in which the magician takes something ordinary and transforms it into something extraordinary 3) The Prestige, in which the magician returns the audience to a feeling of normalcy but still leaves us with a sense of awe as the natural order has been suspended, or at least we have been tricked. Does The Prestige itself also follow this three act formula?
If so, The Pledge occurs at the outset –we see clever magic tricks such as a disappearing bird, even though Borden’s daughter clearly lays out the plot of the film when she asks where the brother went. Is one brother sacrificed for the sake of the trick? Angier is killed in an apparent performance gone wrong and Borden is blamed. Then in a series of disjointed flashbacks and unreliable journal entries, we learn that Angier’s wife was once killed in a drowning accident while they were performing on stage. Was it deliberate? What was Cutter’s involvement? Distraught, Angier and Borden part ways in separate magic acts with both sabotaging each other amidst escalating performances –Angier becomes the “Great Danton” (perhaps an allusion to the infamous French aristocrat during the French Revolution) and he offers a more polished overall presentation, while Borden becomes “The Professor” who performs a less refined show which includes a masterful trick entitled “The Transported Man.”
This leads us to the The Turn. The “Transported Man” trick involves Borden seemingly teleporting himself across the stage from one doorway to another in a matter of seconds. He and his assistant Fallon are widely celebrated for the show, though Cutter seems unimpressed. This is the trick that drives the rest of the plot forward as Angier goes mad and desperately tries to uncover its secret. Cutter claims the trick is merely performed with a body double, but Angier believes some dangerous new science might be at work. Cutter and Angier decide to copy the trick so Cutter locates a doppelgänger, a cynical drunkard named Gerald Root. However, after Angier sends his attractive assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to Borden in the hopes of discovering his secret, but he is betrayed by both Olivia and Root. Olivia presents Angier with a questionable journal written in code by Borden. This leads him to kidnap Borden’s assistant Fallon in an effort to gain the secret to the trick but all he gets is one word: “Tesla.” As revealed in a questionable journal entry, Angier says he traveled to Colorado and met with Nicolai Tesla who contructed a cloning machine before being run out of town by Thomas Edison’s men (the rivalry between Edison and Tesla provides an intriguing backdrop to the story). Tesla leaves behind a note warning Angier against using the trick.
Lastly comes The Prestige. Borden’s relationship with his wife falls apart under confusing circumstances and she kills herself, while Angier arrives back in London to perform his new trick using Tesla’s cloning machine. He begins performing a string of 100 shows in which he is seemingly both killing himself and cloning himself at each show with a body dropping into an enclosed vat of water. Thus we return to the beginning of the film. Borden, facing execution in prison, agrees to give custody of his daughter to an older wealthy gentleman in exchange for his secret to “The Transported Man.” However, the gentleman is soon revealed to be Lord Caldlow, otherwise known as Angier. He apparently intends to claim borden’s daughter and the life that was once taken away from him. However, the real twist comes when Cutter discovers the truth and apparently betrays Caldlow. Borden –the real Borden– meets Caldlow in his warehouse where his water enclosures are stored and promptly shoots him. It is revealed that Cutter was right all along, Borden had a twin and that was the secret to the “Transported Man” trick. With his dying breath, Caldlow admits there is no real magic and the world is ‘solid through and through’ (“The audience knows the truth. The world is simple, miserable…”) but he begs Borden to look around him at the room. Borden declines and simply walks away to once again be reunited with his daughter (alongside Cutter).
So what really happened in this movie? Are we paying close attention? In the war between credulity and realism, realism wins. there are people who want to believe in things like miracles and spectacles, but they are ultimately at the mercy of incredulous magicians. A surface level reading of the film would suggest Angier/Caldlow was truly able to clone himself using a newfangled scientific device. However, in truth we never truly witness the device in action. The only such instance that comes close is a notable scene in which Angier sees his double and quickly shoots him, however this is all revealed in a highly dubious journal entry written by Angier directly to Borden to convince him of its veracity. Otherwise we see the art of misdirection masterfully employed. Are we paying attention? The hats and cats laid outside Tesla’s studio were likely placed there for Angier’s benefit (if he indeed did make such a trip to Colorado). The cloning device did not in fact use real clones at all, but rather it is possible that Angier simply reintroduced Root, the look-alike from his earlier performance of “The Transported Man.” The one exception is saved for when Borgen ventures backstage. In this case, Angier’s double is dropped into a locked case of water which kills him (hence why he appears so disoriented). Thus preserving the ruse and also allowing Angier to exact vengeance on both Root (who betrayed him) and Borden (who killed his wife). The vat of water serves as a kind of poetic justice, however the one thing he does not suspect is that Borden has a misbehaving twin. True to form, Angier maintains total devotion to his art by having each container filled with wire carted away to a warehouse after each performance and, according to the theory, each container is filled with a wax figure of himself. A man with unlimited financial resources would have no problem concocting such an elaborate ploy. However, Borden’s ploy was even more elaborate because it included concealing his identity from his own wife and necessitated switching personas with his twin brother to preserve the integrity of his prized trick.
Lastly, there are many other characters worth examining in this film –such as the odd relationship between Nicola Tesla (David Bowie) and his assistant (Andy Serkis), contrasted with the magicians and their assistants. Who is Tesla and how does he swindle Angier out of his money? He appears only briefly in the midst of financial losses engulfing his rivalry with Edison. Much like the rivalry between Angier and Borden, Tesla and Edison are also trying to copy and sabotage each other. Notably, we never get to hear the true contents of the letter Tesla leaves for Angier (perhaps because there was no letter and the Tesla interlude was merely used as an alluring misdirection). At any rate, the most elusive character in the film for me is Cutter. He frames the entire narrative for us. Is he villainous? He quite obviously helps each magician kill each other’s double. Is Cutter party to the plot along with Borden to steal Angier’s/Caldlow’s money (hence why he does not appear surprised to see Borden at the end)? After all, he encourages them to ‘get their hands dirty.’ In the endless battle between Angier and Borden, Cutter always appears to be a neutral person, an omniscient figure with his own motives. We are led to view him as a warm, inviting, fatherly character –and perhaps this why we should be most skeptical of him. Are we paying attention? Or in the words of Cutter, the neutral editor and the brains behind the project, “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.”