The Prestige: Nolan on Magic

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On the Run from Javert, Part III: The London Years.

By now, Christopher Nolan has become virtually synonymous with “cool” and “awesome” thanks to films like The Dark Knight and Inception. His 2006 film The Prestige shows he didn’t get there by accident. With the fine balance it strikes between thought and action, this mesmerizing dip into the world of stage magic deserves a lot more recognition than it usually gets. Free of the overweening ambition that marks his most recent endeavors, Nolan succeeds here in making a moving, intriguing story about two men and the depths to which they’ll go to perfect their art.

The Prestige recounts the tumultuous relationship between Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), two magicians working at the turn of the 20th century in London. Once fellow apprentices, their friendship quickly turns sour after Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo) drowns while attempting to perform a trick onstage, a failure Angier blames on Borden’s deliberate refusal to follow the instructions of their stage engineer (Michael Caine). Soon afterwards, they split ways to each start their own show. Yet as Angier watches Borden marry and start a family, he can’t help but brood over the love and happiness he believes Borden took away from him. He decides to sabotage Borden’s performances, Borden decides to start wrecking his…and slowly but surely, the growing rivalry between these two men ends up consuming every moment of their existence. They come to completely hate each other – and as we see, there’s nothing they each won’t do to make sure the other one fails.

On a basic level, everyone knows Nolan’s films are fun to watch, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. The scope of the movie is quite small – a character study of two men – but Nolan proves that he doesn’t need foldable cities or high-tech automobiles to win us over. The jumpy editing and adamantly non-linear narrative always keep you hooked; it’s a puzzle where the disjointed way the missing pieces are inserted keeps your expectations in a constant state of flux. And everything else on the checklist for a well-made movie, from the camerawork to the score, receives an equally thorough and admirable treatment – throughout, the elegance that defines the best of Nolan’s repertoire is on full display.

The moment you really realize just how good The Prestige is comes at the ending. There, the plot twist Nolan throws out is not just completely unpredictable; as Angier and Borden would say, it’s the kind of twist that makes you see you’ve been missing out on a whole nother layer of the movie. The surface story about two men’s grudge matches turns out to conceal a darker meditation on the inhuman obsession and painful sacrifices needed to pursue magic, the art of the fleeting illusion. Angier and Borden both become so devoted to creating make-believe for others that they end up creating a double, make-believe existence for themselves, both literally and figuratively. Whether out of jealousy or a nagging perfectionism, they continually strive to bend the laws of nature in the name of something they know never lasts beyond the stage, allowing the world of their illusion-making to supersede reality. In this spirit, Nolan’s carefully choreographed story and script create an atmosphere always tinged with an ever-so-slight touch of illusion, quietly wrapping you inside Angier and Borden’s world of mirages to the point that you, like them, will be forced to question how much is true, how much is false, and how much the answers to those questions really matter.

Adding on to the engrossment factor are the good performances the entire cast turns in. Two stand out in particular. First, Hugh Jackman easily could have made Angier into a banal “mad scientist loses all humanity” trope. Yet even in his most depraved moments, Jackman’s Angier always retains an ineffable, incongruous magnetism; his natural abilities for showmanship are enough for us to almost forget about the many issues with his character. What drives this guy – his dead wife, Borden, magic, a need to please the audience? We never know for sure, but Jackman captures this ambiguous mixture of motives quite compellingly.

The other memorable performance, the late David Bowie as the inventor Nikola Tesla, only appears for a few minutes but carries enough force to merit a mention. Tesla, like Angier and Borden, is a man drawn by some kind of burning obsession to try and change the reality around him. Yet his work ends up ignored by a public woefully unable to appreciate his ideas; the people, as Tesla notes mournfully, “can only be mystified once.” In a movie built on the enigmatic relationship between illusions and truth, Bowie’s Tesla is a chilling testament to the all-consuming precariousness of a life entirely spent laboring on the thin frontier separating the unbelievable from the ordinary. The look in his eyes always has a strange, indelible combination of stubborn persistence and resignation, as if he can’t help but continue even knowing his efforts will probably end futilely. To his own peril, Angier never realizes just how many similarities their situations share – and, since Tesla actually did end up changing the world, just how ephemeral Angier’s stage magic is in comparison.

This is one of those movies whose very nature merits a second viewing.  Beyond its entertainment value, its deceptively straightforward plot is chock full of moments that’ll actually make you think. Bravo to Nolan for ignoring the way 90% of Hollywood blockbusters are made and actually daring to give this movie a brain. Lately, alas, he’s been floating a little off his prime after Interstellar, a somewhat bloated movie that wanted to say so much and instead ended up saying…I still don’t know. Let’s hope that this, not Matthew McConaughey in a space suit, better represents where Nolan’s films end up going in the future.


The Prestige (2006)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie

Running Time: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Produced by: Aaron Ryder, Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Written by: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan

Based on Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel of the same name.

Image of Jackman from here.