The Christopher Nolan Retrospective continues! Last time, we analyzed what made Insomnia so very different from the rest of the Nolan filmography. Today, however, we skip Batman Begins (Saving it for a later installment) and move straight on to the exact opposite of Insomnia in what many people argue to be the Nolan-iest film in the Nolan catalogue: The Prestige.
As always, I’m going to point out that I’m skipping the Batman movies and saving them for a special Dark Knight Trilogy installment to close this series off with, which will coincide with my The Dark Knight Rises review; and I’m also going to warn you that this will contain some major spoilers. So if you haven’t seen The Prestige yet, I’m sad to report that it’s not on Netflix Instant, but you could still rent the disc wherever discs are available.
With that being said, let’s dive right into The Prestige…
“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.”
I mentioned in the last installment that The Prestige is the only Nolan film that I’ve somehow skipped. I don’t wanna get to into it, but let’s just say that when this film came out in 2006 (I was only 11), it came out at around the same time as another film about magicians called The Illusionist and silly little me decided to watch that one instead. Because of that, when I finally got into movies two years later and started going through Nolan’s work, I never got around to seeing that particular one because of my shame for skipping it for a much inferior film.
Well, I finally saw it, and while it may not be my favorite film of Christopher Nolan’s, I do think it’s one of his best and definitely belongs in his top three. The other two I’d consider are Memento and another film which we’ll discuss in a later installment.
The Prestige follows two magicians named Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) in the late 1800s, when electricity was still not fully implemented into society and the art of magic tricks was just as much of an art as the art of the theater. The two were very passionate colleagues together, acting as assistants for another magician, hoping to one day to make it to the big leagues themselves. That is, until a grave accident happens in one of their tricks, causing the death of Angier’s love.
When Angier discovers that perhaps her death could’ve been caused by Borden not using the proper rope knot, the two are flung into a rivalry that lasts for years as they each keep upending each other for their audiences and the secrets behind their tricks.
The Prestige engages the audience right from the gate. The opening perfectly establishes the eerie mood with a haunting image of hundreds of top hats lying alone outdoors, and then cutting to the infamous monologue from Michael Caine in which he explains the three steps of a proper magic trick: The Pledge, in which something ordinary is introduced; the Turn, in which the ordinary becomes extraordinary; and finally the Prestige, in which all the twists and turns enrapture the audience. He then says that the nature of surprising an audience comes from the way we generally want to be surprised. The best magicians play on that truth. They make you just curious enough to wonder “how did it all work out”, without ever giving you the chance to ever figure it out.
In case the analogy isn’t clear enough, the magic tricks in the film aren’t the only ones being performed. The film is the magic trick.
I’ve heard many people describe The Prestige as Christopher Nolan’s rosetta stone; if you understand The Prestige, you begin to notice all of the things that connect his work and begin to understand his storytelling method. Now that I’ve finally seen it, I can’t agree more. The Prestige has just about every established Nolan theme in the book, it has the exact Nolan character type that I mentioned in my Insomnia analysis to a tee, and it is still able to surprise and even shock you, just as every Nolan film is able to do.
But before we get into the big themes, which I generally like to save for the end, let’s look at what’s actually on screen…
It’s interesting to note that there aren’t really many movies that are about magicians. Oh sure, there are plenty of movies that have magicians in them, but it’s rare to see one that really delves into the world of magicians the way The Prestige does (Keep in mind that I don’t even remember anything about The Illusionist at all).
In The Prestige, magic feels less like a side-show act and more like it’s own underground society. Each magician longs to know the other’s secrets, some of them even devoting their whole lives to playing an act just to subvert all the other magicians.
Making a film that revolves entirely on magic tricks is kind of difficult to actually achieve. Part of what makes magic tricks so enthralling is that they’re being performed right in front of your very eyes, and you yourself are the judge of how the magician was able to do it. But that doesn’t usually translate well in film, where you can always tell whether something is a special effect and that it isn’t true magic you’re watching.
The odd thing about The Prestige is that it still maintains the sense of wonder you get from watching a good magic trick while still breaking the first rule of magicians pervasively: A magician never tells his secrets.
Part of what’s so interesting about the way The Prestige plays out is how we see the ways magic tricks are performed and the secrets behind them. This makes the magic tricks interesting in the first place, because you are always inherently curious on how they actually do it in the first place and seeing the ways they’re executed step by step taps into that natural curiosity. But then you get to a trick where you can’t possibly imagine how Borden or Angier pulled it off, and that curiosity is tapped again. Because the characters are just as interested as learning the secrets behind the magicians, the audience wants to know how the hell they do it too.
Of course, the rivalry between the two is the strongest aspect of The Prestige. It’s the best kind of cat and mouse game, set against the incredibly imaginative backdrop of magicians. Each one keeps on upending the other using everything at their disposal: From disguises, to turning their own assistants against them, and even by using their own magic tricks off stage. Everything keeps escalating to more and more ridiculous and over the top levels, but the gothic mood and the performances ground things just enough or you to accept the film’s logic and rules.
Speaking of the performances, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are perhaps the biggest reason why the rivalry between Angier and Borden works so well. Both actors are very good at displaying a certain intensity to them. I mean, no matter how many crappy X-Men movies we get, Hugh Jackman plays the Wolverine so well we still watch them anyway just for him. And Christian Bale is so talented we still turn up to watch him in anything even though it’s been proven that he may just be completely crazy in real life.
In The Prestige, they each up that intensity they’re so good at harnessing, but they make it even more intense by, ironically, restraining themselves. There are times where it’s almost like a battle of manners. They’re not simply just going at each other with guns and chasing one another through the streets whenever they see one another. It’s more about wits and sabotage, less about making sure the other is dead and more focused on damaging one’s reputation so the other would live an empty life. And the way each scenario gets deadlier and deadlier makes the suspense almost unbearable. We all know it’s going to end in death, considering the opening scene in which Angier is killed during his greatest trick, and just waiting for it to finally reach that point fills each scene with tons of menace and dread.
While the film mostly shows things from Angier’s perspective, neither he nor Borden are the heroes. In fact, there aren’t really any heroes in this story. Borden may be the more secretive one of the two, but by the end of the film, we question whether Angier may have taken things too far and become unsure of who to really root for.
Christian Bale arguably has the more difficult role, considering he lives an entirely secretive life. Plus when it’s revealed what the true nature of Borden’s relationship with his assistant Fallon is, we realize just how deceptive and secretive even Bale was with his performance. But Hugh Jackman’s transformation from a wronged man who wants revenge to a complete monster who is comfortable with taking away every ounce of Borden’s life, is equally impressive. Both of them each have their own rights and wrongs, and the way they equal out is a testament to bot their performances and their writing.
It’s also worth noting the way Christopher Nolan diabolically lays out twist after twist with almost no effort. Just when we think we have a handle on how everything works, much like Memento, new bits of information reveal themselves and make you question even the beginning of the film, giving old scenes new meaning and making sure the audience can’t trust either Angier or Borden. Plenty of Nolan’s films are worthy of watching multiple times to get the full picture, and The Prestige is without a doubt one of his most deceptive films.
So it’s interesting to see how Nolan is able to imbue the artificial magic with an actual sense of wonder and escalate the rivalry between Angier and Borden to greater and greater lengths of tension and menace. But how is The Prestige Nolan’s Rosetta Stone? What makes it the key to understanding Nolan’s work?
Let’s look back at all the things that I’ve brought up as recurring elements in Nolan’s filmography. We have the two main themes: The relationship between order and chaos, and the idea that subjectivity can shape objective reality. Then we have the sub-theme: the inner struggle between logic and emotion (a.k.a. “head” vs. “heart”). And finally, the sub-theme leads to a specific character trait that is found in all of his films: the professionalist character whose downfall is brought up by emotional interference.
The order/chaos dichotomy is obvious from the get-go. Magicians rely solely on order in order to keep their secrets from being unveiled and in order to pull off the trick effortlessly without giving away the workings behind it. And of course, when the two magicians start to make it personal, they slowly descend into chaos until neither of them can tell the difference between the trick and what is actually going on.
This of course, ties directly into the character types. Both main characters are professionalists who hold order as their highest virtue and are led to their downfalls through emotional interference. This is also seen in Batman, Leonard Shelby, Dom Cobb, and every single Christopher Nolan protagonist he’s ever created.
But most interestingly of all is the way he brings back the theme of subjective reality shaping objective reality. Much like how Leonard couldn’t tell the difference between memory and truth, or how Cobb couldn’t distinguish between dream and reality, the main characters double-crossed so constantly that they and the audience start to wonder if any of what they just saw actually happened or whether the whole thing was one big magic trick.
And it’s not just the trick-or-no-trick confusion that constitutes this theme. When it’s revealed that Fallon and Borden are, in fact, the same person, they literally are the same person. There’s never a moment where Borden ends or Fallon begins. They are the same entity, split. They’ve become so used to switching places, and pretty much playing one big trick on everyone they’ve ever known for their entire lives that they’ve lost sight of what their true reality is. If their whole life is a magic trick, that magic trick defines their objective reality.
But that’s not all. This theme is brought up again when Angier harnesses the power of Tesla’s cloning machine. When he uses it, a copy of himself is created and teleported to another area of the room. He uses it to create the single greatest illusion ever seen in the magician landscape. However, he uses it so many times in his act and in practice that a fear starts to grow in him. When he comes out of the trick, will he be the original or the copy? Is he the man that stepped into the machine, or the prestige who steps out on the other end to shock the audience?
Despite how different each character is, they both end up having the same conflict in their subjective view of reality: The double. What defines them? The real them? Or the trick? The doppleganger? The clone?
In devoting their life to the art, they end up destroying each other. The only one with a chance of redemption is Borden/Fallon, who is now rid of his twin and can now live with his daughter. But even then, there are darker undercurrents and things merely hinted at. Is Borden in a fitting psychological state to keep this redemption? And what exactly happened to all those clones of Angier? We saw him shoot one of them the first time he tested the machine on himself. But did he do the same for the rest? Could he still be out there?
Not only is each and every single one of the typical Nolan elements and themes present in the film, the way the film shows the relationship between the magic tricks and the audience is very much like the relationship between Nolan’s films and his audience. Both Borden and Angier are the audience and the filmmaker, and the way they each wish to desperately learn each other’s secrets is very much like how the audience wishes to piece togeter the mystery. Not just the mystery of The Prestige, but for Memento, Following, and Nolan’s films in general.
It’s not as overtly meta-textual as something like Cabin in the Woods, but the connections are there. We all want to seek the mystery, yet we still allow ourselves to be subversed by the magician. It’s like Christopher Nolan is just dangling the secret behind the effectiveness all of his films like a carrot, only to subverse us again and still get away with it.
The Prestige could’ve been about anything other than magic. It could’ve been about rival painters trying to copy each other techniques, or maybe rival architects who create deadlier and deadlier designs for their buildings just to one-up each other. Or, perhaps if Nolan wanted to be obvious, it could’ve been rival storytellers (or even filmmakers) creating exceedingly more imaginative stories just to spite on another, until they suddenly lose themselves in their own work.
But the magic trick analogy was a perfect fit. Much like a magician, the filmmaker uses expert timing and manipulation in order to achieve a desired effect from the audience. Part of it is just an act, part of it is genuine emotion and heart, the other part pure deception. The anatomy of a magic trick is very much like the anatomy of a good thriller. You look for the secret, but you’ll never find it. Because like all good magic tricks, you want to be…fooled.
After The Prestige, Christopher Nolan went on to take over popular culture with the record-breaking sensation that was and is The Dark Knight. Because of the insane success that it brought both financially and critically, Christopher Nolan was then given the influence to do whatever the hell he wanted with as big of a budget as he could imagine. What happens when an auteur such as Nolan is given an unlimited supply of budget and time to create a film for a script that he spent ten years writing? Find out in the next installment in which I analyze Inception.
That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to just spin this top. And there’s nothing that will cut me mid senten–