Ten Years Later, Why We’re Still Obsessed With ‘The Prestige’
The Dark Knight shattered box-office records across the world and Inception captivated the public in 2010, but an unassuming tale about magicians is the Christopher Nolan film I revisit most. Ten years have passed since The Prestige debuted, and without Batman or Leonardo DiCaprio, the film hasn’t gathered the mass following of Nolan’s bigger blockbusters. Perhaps movie fans need to watch it one more time. In an interview with Film4, Christopher Nolan explained the appeal of directing The Prestige. “For me,” he said, “the fun of watching a magic trick is wanting to know; it’s being aware there’s a trick in what you’re seeing, and not quite being able to penetrate the secret.” Nolan is a magician in a way as well, misdirecting audiences and leaving them with questions that have lingered ever since The Prestige’s debut in 2006.
Despite being released in the middle of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, The Prestige bears more tonal similarities to Nolan’s directorial debut, 1998’s Following. That film focused on a writer who randomly follows people to generate material for his books. The voyeuristic thrill excites him, but it comes at a cost; one of the men he shadows begins targeting him back. That relationship is mirrored in The Prestige and its two leads: Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). The world of turn of the 20th century magic is brutal, but rival magicians are more brutal. Obsession, secrecy, and revenge mark the years-long tension between Borden and Angier.
Borden and Angier meet as apprentices to Milton the Magician (Ricky Jay), but both men aspire to greater things. Their rivalry escalates when Angier and Borden assist Milton’s show-stopping tank trick featuring Angier’s fiancé, Julia (Piper Perabo). A scene later, when both men take in another magician’s show, Borden spots the secret while Angier sits confounded. Deception comes so easily to Borden that the methodology is immediately apparent. “Real magic requires commitment” Borden claims. What the audience doesn’t know is that those words will ring through the rest of the film. The next time Julia performs a tank escape, the key knot isn’t slipped and a blood feud is born between Borden and Angier.
Commitment, initially Angier’s biggest weakness, becomes his greatest strength as he makes destroying Borden the sole purpose of his life. Angier blames Borden for taking away the happiness that should have been his; in truth, his fury quickly moves beyond the loss of Julia. By the time the “Transported Man” illusion drives the two men to murderous blows, both had ignored multiple opportunities to simply turn around and stop. Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) and a burgeoning new career weren’t enough for Angier, and a new wife (Rebecca Hall) and child couldn’t distract Borden from his prestidigitation. Worse still, neither woman knew the whole truth about Borden and Angier.
Nolan is famously secretive. He once waited in Michael Caine’s home while the actor read the screenplay for Batman Begins, rather than let his script out of his sight. But Nolan is also very upfront about how much he is willing to let the audience know. This voiceover by Cutter (Caine) explains the structure of magic tricks, and mirrors how Nolan formats the film:
The phrase “Are you watching closely?” gets repeated throughout The Prestige, but its full meaning is only clear at the end of the film. The sequential nature of cinema forces audiences to learn information along with the onscreen characters. It’s only fitting that a film about liars should also lie to the audience. By tweaking his film’s chronology, Nolan kept the audience in the dark.
In 2000’s Memento, Nolan withheld the full scope of its forgetful hero’s actions until the third act. Leonard (Guy Pearce) may appear heroic, but he’s ultimately revealed as a fraud perpetuating a false mystery to maintain his flimsy sense of purpose. Similarly, The Prestige waits to reveal the full truth about Angier and Borden. Until the third act, the film is told from Borden’s perspective, as he reads Angier’s diary in prison. Left with no alternatives, Angier enlists the help of Nikola Tesla (David freaking Bowie!) to create a machine that allows him to duplicate Borden’s Transported Man. Throughout the film, Cutter tells Angier that the truth is in front of his face, if he would only stop looking for a grander explanation.
On first viewing, The Prestige presents itself as a story about magic, or magic as a metaphor for filmmaking in the spoiler-centric modern era. “For me,” Nolan says in The Prestige’s making-of documentary, “The Prestige is very much about filmmaking. It’s very much about what I do.”
Hollywood is an industry based on artful deception and illusion. Celluloid sells a narrative just like magicians. But that’s also what someone trying to divert an audience’s attention would say. The magic-as-filmmaking metaphor sits right in front of willing eyes as the movie’s real theme escapes unnoticed: The Prestige is actually a treatise on the existence of God.
Hugh Jackman’s last line sums it up best: “The audience knows the truth — that the world is simple. Miserable. Solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, you could make them wonder. Then you got to see something very special.” But what if you know the illusion is a fraud? Angier sacrifices everything for the spotlight, killing himself an endless number of times to best Borden with the assistance of Nikola Tesla’s machine.
While the Tesla subplot doesn’t seem necessary at first, it’s important because of its contribution to the film’s religious subtext. Tesla has the ability to do things that magicians must pretend to achieve. When Angier introduces his reworked “Transported Man” to Ackerman, the promoter tells the magician to “Disguise it. Give them enough reason to doubt it.” If Tesla is able to create such a stunning machine, why would a higher power be necessary?
Angier behaves like a man with no belief in a higher power. Here was a man who had seen up close what Tesla was capable of, but he simply took the device and went on his way. The realization that Tesla’s machine works should give Angier doubts about the ultimate consequence of his actions, but that doesn’t stop him from committing awful acts. The only time he hints at having any fear is when he asks “Would I be the man in the box or the prestige?”
The Prestige serves as a reminder of the harsh truth lurking behind the ways we cope with reality; as the movie says, we want to be fooled. Christopher Nolan’s personal religious beliefs have never been made public, but it’s not difficult to see the meaning in the following quote. “The real paradox, which is the paradox of magic ... is that much as the audience wants to know the secret, the secret ultimately will be disappointing.”
Audiences are happy to be kept in the dark, and they will see “magic” where it pleases them. People accept the charade because it’s easier than accepting the truth. If Christopher Nolan has a definitive answer on the film’s stance on God, he’s not saying. Magicians don’t reveal their secrets.