“Are you watching closely?” The first line in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 magic-imbued mystery The Prestige is a provocative invitation to look, but not a promise that you’ll see anything of significance if you do. Based on a 1995 novel by sci-fi/fantasy writer Christopher Priest, the film is a circuitous odyssey into the world of stage magicians in Victorian-era England, focusing on two highly ambitious yet troubled illusionists: Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier and Christian Bale as Alfred Borden. Looking closely is a challenge aimed directly at the viewer, but also serves a thematic purpose for Angier and Borden’s inability to reconcile the dichotomy between their private and public selves. The closer one looks, the more one loses perspective on the bigger picture and looks for something that just isn’t there – when the simplest explanation is often the correct one. The enigmatic nature of magic is right at home in Nolan’s late-19th century setting, where enlightenment about the truth behind an illusion is as thought-provoking as the newly-minted electric technology of the era.
The opening question of The Prestige, spoken by Borden, is accompanied by a brief, uncontextualized shot that will later be a key to unlocking one of the film’s central mysteries – proof that Nolan’s sleight-of-hand as a filmmaker is immediate and persistent throughout the entirety of the film. As dueling magicians in an age when fascination with the art of illusion was at an all-time high, Angier and Borden are driven to come up with acts that meet the growing demands of an audience seeking increasingly dangerous and mystifying tricks. From elaborate feats of escape to bullet catches, Angier and Borden engage in career-spanning acts of sabotage and one-upmanship that ultimately devastate both their personal and professional lives.
The “turn” portion of the film arrives when Borden unveils his “Transported Man” trick – a bewildering act in which he is able to enter a cabinet on one side of the stage and emerge from another on the opposite side a moment later. The rest of Angier’s life is devoted to uncovering the mystery behind the Transported Man – and by duplicating and improving upon it, achieving his own fame and notoriety in the world of performative magic. His obsession leads him to seek out real-life inventor Nikola Tesla, played in an inspired bit of casting by Ziggy Stardust himself, David Bowie. Tesla’s highly secretive experiments with electricity may provide Angier with a working device to accomplish his own Transported Man trick, but his ensuing success is also burdened with tragic consequences.
Nolan’s adaptation of Priest’s novel is a striking meditation on the nature of duality – not only in how characters see themselves in contrast to one another, but also in the bifurcation of one’s self. As professional foils, Angier and Borden make formidable opponents; even more interesting is how each man grapples with the dueling desires within himself. Borden surrenders so completely to the art of his craft that he must settle for a life only half-lived when he’s offstage. Conversely, Angier runs from his life of privilege to seek out a new onstage identity, reinventing himself as “The Great Danton” in an effort to achieve renown outside the confines of his family name. Nolan reinforces this theme with repeated dyadic imagery – the horrible truth behind the disappearing/reappearing dove trick immediately comes to mind – as well as the cyclical nature of the film’s timeline. Like Nolan’s previous work Memento, the resolution to the mysteries within The Prestige reveal themselves in due time by recalling previously-shown events once the audience is privy to newly uncovered information. Revisiting these moments places greater emphasis on things that may have been overlooked the first time around, following through on the film’s early invitation to “watch closely.”
The concept of “The Prestige” as described in the film – the awe that follows when you’ve produced a transformed object at the end of a magic trick – is what Angier and Borden wish to achieve, albeit for a different purpose. In magic as well as in film, revealing the methods behind the trick can quickly deflate any sense of wonder the act held in the first place. As one character in the film puts it, “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 know. You want to be fooled.” Not only does the film explicitly tell us to watch closely and repeatedly shows us its cards, so to speak, but the denouement still manages to surprise, making it a treat for repeated viewings to see how many clues you can pull out of each frame. When Nolan finally reveals his hand, it’s mind-blowing solely for how prosaic the answer truly was all along – and it is for pulling off this great magic trick that he deserves a special kind of prestige all his own.
Rating: 4 Stars