100 Film Favorites – #3: The Prestige
(Christopher Nolan, 2006)
At last, we’re coming to the end of the long drawn-out Film Favorites Countdown. My apologies to those of you who have been waiting patiently for the epic conclusion – hopefully the delay has at least served to create some suspense.
That said, we’re finally into the much-revered TOP THREE slots of the Countdown! We start off with a film which dares to ask the question: What could be better than a science-fiction-tinged mystery set in the Victorian era?
And follows it up with the only possible answer, surprising in its simplicity: Throw in Batman and Wolverine, fighting in top hats.
Before you read any further, bear in mind that, perhaps even more than Fight Club, the effectiveness of The Prestige lies in the way clues to understanding the dual conundrums at the story’s core are gradually revealed. Therefore, virtually anything I say about the plot could constitute “spoilers.” Far be it from me to intentionally diminish your viewing experience – I strongly suggest dropping whatever you’re doing and watching the film before proceeding.
The movie begins with Michael Caine (or “My Cocaine” if you say it in his accent), explaining in voiceover that every magic trick has three key components or stages. First comes the “Pledge,” in which a magician presents an ordinary object (“a deck of cards…a bird…or a man”) to an audience, and often invites the onlookers to inspect said object for any sign of trickery. In the second stage, the “Turn,” the magician makes the ordinary object do something extraordinary. Levitate, for instance. Or disappear.
Thus, the final and most important part of the trick is the Prestige, when normalcy is restored, and the magician seems truly in control of the supernatural forces he pretends to command.
The film stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, two rival Victorian-era stage magicians who perform under the respective aliases of “The Great D’Anton” and “The Professor.” As in previous Countdown entry Holes, the story unfolds in a non-linear fashion, with narrative threads from three different periods in the magicians’ lives intertwining and converging by the end.
The three threads are “nested” like Russian dolls: In the outermost, “present” thread, Borden investigates one of Angier’s performances, sneaking below stage. At the climax of the act, Angier falls through a trapdoor in the stage, landing in a tank of water in front of Borden which promptly locks. Though Borden actually attempts to save the struggling Angier, the police arrive to find him face to face with his drowned former rival, and haul him off to jail. Based on the testimony of Michael Caine (who plays Mr. Cutter, Angier’s “ingenieur,” or designer of illusions), Borden is convicted of murder and sentenced to hang.
While Borden sits in prison, a solicitor representing a wealthy “magic hobbyist” approaches him and offers to buy the secrets behind Borden’s tricks for a substantial sum of money. Though Borden declines, the solicitor warns him to think of the fate of his daughter, who without money and care will be consigned to an orphanage or workhouse. As further incentive, the solicitor comes bearing a gift: the diary of the late Robert Angier. Borden cracks it open and begins to read…
In the “middle” thread, Angier, a rich and famous magician, travels to Colorado Springs to fund the research of eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla (played by the Goblin King himself, former glam-rocker David Bowie). Angier believes that Borden’s most fantastic illusion is facilitated by a mechanical device designed by Tesla, and hopes that by pouring more and more of his fortune into the scientist’s experiments, he can convince Tesla to build him such a machine as well. Meanwhile, he works on parsing Borden’s own encrypted diary for further clues…
The “deepest,” earliest thread explores the origins of Angier and Borden’s rivalry. The two begin as young apprentices to the same magician, a mid-tier performer named Milton. Milton employs Cutter as his ingenieur, and Angier’s wife works as Milton’s “lovely assistant.” Together, the foursome routinely perform a trick in which Borden and Angier (posing as run-of-the-mill audience members) come up onstage and bind the “lovely assistant” with ropes. Angier’s trussed wife is then hoisted high above the stage and dropped into a tank of water – the same fateful tank from the “outer” shell story – at which point she has one minute to make a “magical” escape.
The young Angier and Borden have differing philosophies toward their craft. Angier is an adept showman, and values flare and a repartee with his audience. But Borden insists that truly great magic comes only from totally dedicating oneself to one’s work. Together, the apprentices visit a show put on by a Chinese magician. The elderly, frail man makes a series of progressively larger, unwieldy objects appear instantly before him, culminating with a huge goldfish bowl filled with water. Borden deduces that the magician is simply holding the objects between his knees beneath his robe…a feat requiring considerable strength. The real “trick” is that the magician is only pretending to be old and feeble. All the time. Everywhere he goes. “His whole life is the illusion.”
Young Borden desires to make his tricks more edgy and impressive, and so he suggests using a different, more difficult knot in the quartet’s water-escape trick. Though Angier and Cutter are opposed to the change, Angier’s wife is game. Then, one evening, Borden goes ahead with it…maybe. The knot he ultimately ties isn’t shown, but in the end Angier’s wife is unable to make the escape, and drowns before Milton or the others can extricate her from the tank. At the funeral, a furious Angier demands to know which knot Borden chose.
Borden says he doesn’t know.
The years pass, and the two rivals become full-fledged magicians in their own rights. Angier, ever the showman, exhibits a ritzy, ostentatious persona, aiming for elegance and playing only the finest venues. Borden, on the other hand, tends toward seedier gigs and a lower-class audience.
Cutter outfits Angier for a high-tech trick; Borden clinks rings together.
To drum up more interest in his performance, Borden attempts a “bullet catch,” a risky illusion in which the magician hands an audience member a loaded gun, and instructs him to fire. The magician then miraculously “catches” the bullet in midair (the trick is that the magician slips the bullet out of the barrel during the hand-off). But Angier sneaks into the show incognito and sabotages the act. After the hand-off (heh heh, hand off), Angier slips a metal slug into the gun and blows off two of Borden’s fingers.
In short order, Borden sneaks into Angier’s show and sabotages one of HIS tricks. It really seems like they’d get better at seeing through each other’s disguises. At any rate, Borden’s prank is less harmful, and for a while Angier writes off his rival, at least in the magic arena. After all, sleight-of-hand is difficult when you’re missing half a hand.
But everything changes when Borden debuts a spectacular new illusion he calls “The Transported Man.” The trick is simple in concept but mind-blowing in its implications: Borden has two large wooden cabinets set up at opposite ends of the stage. At the magic moment, he steps into one of the cabinets…and emerges instantaneously from the other. Angier is spellbound, and completely unable to figure out how the trick is accomplished. Cutter insists that Borden must use a double, a second person made-up to look like him, but Angier is absolutely convinced that the self-same Borden both enters the near cabinet and exits the far one. After all, both the in-Borden and the out-Borden have the trademark maimed hand.
At this point, the two magicians become true nemeses, each obsessed with one-upping the other. Angier is particularly obsessed with learning the secret of Borden’s “Transported Man.” Angier’s first attempt at the trick, dubbed “The New Transported Man,” uses a double, as per Cutter’s design. But this fails to satisfy Angier, who must “take his bows beneath the stage” while his drunkard doppelganger (also played by Hugh Jackman) receives the adulation of the crowd. To make things worse, Borden eventually discovers the identity of Angier’s double, and bribes him to help sabotage the act. Borden removes a protective sandbag, causing Angier to shatter his leg when he drops beneath the stage.
The men’s obsession gradually dominates their personal lives as well. Angier sends his own “lovely assistant,” Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), to spy on Borden (she purloins Borden’s diary for him). Perhaps partly out of professional spite for his rival, Borden begins an affair with Olivia, much to the dismay of his wife, who eventually commits suicide.
Angier is frustrated to discover that Olivia has “switched sides,” and angrier still that Borden’s diary is encrypted with a cypher which requires a five-letter keyword to crack. Finally, Angier resorts to kidnapping Borden’s own ingenieur, a mysterious mute named Mr. Fallon, to extract from Borden both the keyword and the secret behind “The Transported Man.” Borden reveals that “the keyword IS the secret,” and that keyword is TESLA.
And thus the disparate story threads begin to converge. In Colorado Springs, Angier eagerly awaits the day Tesla will present him with a functional teleportation machine, which will enable him to perform “The REAL Transported Man.” One night, goons hired by Tesla’s own arch-rival, Thomas Edison, raid his laboratory and run him out of town. Tesla has just enough time to bequeath the completed machine to Angier…with a warning. Tesla cautions him never to use the machine. Though money may be no object to the wealthy Angier, the true cost of using the device could prove too great.
Back in the “outer” storyline, Angier has booked the most prominent theater in London for his “Real Transported Man” show, which will run for 100 nights only. For the act, he “amps up” Borden’s original trick: Angier steps into a massive Tesla coil, disappears in a blast of intense electricity, and instantly appears on the auditorium’s upper balcony, hundreds of feet away, to the amazement of his audience. It is while examining one such performance of this miraculous “trick” that Borden is caught beneath the stage and charged with Angier’s murder.
And so we’ve come nearly full circle. Angier is dead, and Borden is destined for the gallows.
But a short while after Borden hangs, Mr. Cutter suddenly finds himself face to face with a very decidedly living and breathing Angier. When Borden, too, emerges from the woodwork alive and well, the two magicians have got some ‘splainin to do.
What is going on? How are the two supposedly departed rivals, hell-bent on each other’s destruction, still kicking? And how exactly did they pull off the Transported Man, anyway?
(If you really, REALLY want to know the secret(s), check out the “Tidbits” section below).
The Prestige is the nearest example I can think of to being a “perfect film.” The script is tighter than a drum, and Nolan’s storytelling is nothing short of masterful. The nonlinear narrative serves to emphasize the mysterious, puzzle-like nature of the film, and allows bits and pieces of information to be presented in snippets throughout.
The first time I saw this movie, I immediately wanted to watch it again as soon as it ended – a feeling I’ve never experienced with any other film. And indeed, The Prestige rewards repeated viewings. Every time you watch it, you catch on to more and more hints dropped throughout the film, pointing toward the key secrets behind Angier and Borden’s charade. In short, it’s an amazingly written, skillfully acted, unforgettable bit of cinema. There’s top hats, steampunk, Nikola Tesla, cutthroat rivalries, plenty of twists, and My Cocaine.
OKAY, OKAY. Here’s the BIG HONKIN’ SPOILER SECRETS, so reader beware:
-Tesla’s teleportation machine actually turns out to be a cloning machine, producing an exact copy at the “receiver” end of whatever is fed into the “transmitter” end. This becomes problematic when one tries “teleporting” living things. Every time Angier uses the machine in his act, he produces a living copy of himself at the other end of the auditorium. Thus, one of the Angiers must be disposed of each performance (hence the water tank under the stage, to drown the unwanted clones). In the original novel by Christopher Priest, the copying process tears off a little piece of Angier’s soul with each iteration, making his tribulation even more terrible.
-As for Borden, he DID use a double of sorts…just a very good one. The man known as Borden is actually two people, a pair of identical twin brothers who have totally dedicated their lives (a la the Chinese magician) to maintaining an illusion: that they are one and the same person. When not performing the Transported Man, they take turns “being” Borden. The off-duty brother simply dons some fake muttonchops and a dark coat and “becomes” the shady Mr. Fallon. And the two ARE dedicated: In order to match the one brother’s maimed hand after the mangled bullet catch, the other must chisel off two of his own fingers.
Angier (or his one-hundred-and-first clone) faces off with the remaining Borden brother in a warehouse, and they share their brain-bending secrets. Borden shoots Angier for framing him and attempting to take his daughter, then walks away past Mr. Cutter, who looks on almost apathetically (I guess crazy crap starts to seem pretty unremarkable when you spend your life designing magic tricks). In the final shot, Angier slumps to the ground, as the camera pans to reveal that the warehouse is filled with one hundred identical water tanks…
[Final note (also fairly Spoileriffic): Angier has a cloning machine at his disposal. This thing can literally produce perfect copies of ANYTHING with no expenditure on Angier’s part. He could make a mountain of money. He could make a mountain of gold. He could even make a mountain of socks! Angier has the ability to churn out an unlimited quantity of ANYTHING, sell it at a premium price (since his financial cost, NOTHING, is automatically less than that of any other factory) and retire. So why doesn’t he? I guess obsession just really clouds your judgement.]