Note: This article more or less ran as an installment of Film Library, because it seemed ridiculous to write a similarly structured article about the same movie twice.
Only once before during this Cinematic Century project was I compelled to be a tad lazy, and more or less re-run an article I’d already written before. Yeah, I’ve picked a lot of movies during this project that I’d already talked about in some capacity before on the site, but it was only in 1962 that I couldn’t deny that my favorite film was one I had already talked at length about. And, it’s time for me to go back to that well, because try as I might, I couldn’t deny the fact that my favorite film of 2006 is Christopher Nolan’s terrific film, the Prestige. Which, I’d already done an entire Film Library post on, focusing on the film and the novel it was based on. And, weirdly, it seems like 2006 was always going to be an issue with this problem, because the film that gave the Prestige the biggest run for its money was Casino Royale, another film that I’ve kind of said everything I need to say about. There are some other great movies from 2006 that I hadn’t talked about before, but the whole point of this project was to talk about my favorite films of each year, not my second or third favorite just because it was convenient. There are some great movies that I like quite a bit, like Guillermo del Toro’s masterful Pan’s Labyrinth, one of the more unique fantasy films I’ve ever seen. We also get Martin Scorsese’s the Departed, which I was pretty obsessed with at the time, and which really does remain one of my favorite films of his. And, speaking of films I was obsessed with in 2006, Little Miss Sunshine sure was up my alley at the time, although I haven’t revisited in years, so I really don’t know how it holds up. But, what does hold up is Children of Men, one of the more upsetting dystopia films of the modern era. And then there’s Stranger Than Fiction, another movie that definitely came close to being chosen as a favorite of mine, but it’s also a movie I’ve written about here, so I just couldn’t win. But, I feel confident in my choice of the Prestige, because it remains one of my favorite films of all time.
Christopher Nolan is a director that gets a lot of attention, and rightfully so. I feel like I often get a strange desire to discredit him a bit, feeling like he gets to over-rated. But, then I revisit his work, and am consistently blown away by how great a filmmaker he really is. Yeah, the Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar don’t really work great for me, but he knows what he’s doing. He’s a fascinating filmmaker, and one of the most interesting storytellers working today. And, I really don’t know how shocking of an opinion this is, but I would consider the Prestige to be his best film. By a lot. I really like almost all of his movies. But I love the Prestige. From when I first saw the film in theaters I’ve been a little obsessed with it, and it’s probably his movie I’ve seen the most. There’s just something about the film that checks a staggering amount of my boxes. We get magicians, Nikola Tesla, turn of the century aesthetics, con-men, mysteries, and a story that’s ultimately about how obsession can destroy you. It’s a beautiful film, and it clearly meant a lot to Nolan to make. He and his brother Jonathan learned about the novel, written by Christopher Priest, and waited years so they could option it and bring it to the screen. It was a passion project of theirs, and they spent five years working on the screenplay in between other projects, taking a novel that they loved and finding the perfect way to adapt it to the screen, crafting it in a way to best work as a film. Which, was a little difficult, since the way the novel is structured didn’t exactly lend itself to a straight-forward adaptation. And, after the success of Batman Begins, Nolan was given the allowance to bring this incredibly strange, lavish film to life. He brought along several of his usual cast-mates and crew, used sound-stages and actual old theaters to bring Victorian London to life, and set to work making this film as quickly and efficiently as possible. But then, as luck would have it, two other movies about stage magicians came out that year. The Prestige did decently, both in terms of critical response and box office results, but it ended up getting overshadowed by the oddly mediocre the Illusionist and the Woody Allen movie Scoop. And yet, the film endured. It has slowly become something of a cult classic, becoming a film that I see quite a bit of affection for in movie dork circles, but not necessarily anywhere else. Inception and the Batman movies have taken up a lot of the Prestige’s attention, which is a real shame. Because this really is one of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen.
The plot of this film is incredibly hard to explain in the way that it’s portrayed. It’s a nonlinear film, told through flashbacks while two men are reading each other’s diaries, so I’m just going to try and explain the plot chronologically. Just for my own sanity.
The Prestige is the entwined stories of two men who are struggling to gain fame and fortune as stage magicians in turn of the century London. We have Robert Angier, an idealistic man who has a flair for showmanship, and Alfred Borden, a cynical and reserved magician who has a lot of technical skill, but feels a little bland at times. Their lives become inextricably linked when they work together as apprentice magicians for a more established magician, paying their dues. Unfortunately, during a performance Angier’s wife Julie drowns, potentially because Borden tied a more difficult knot than he was supposed to. Borden then heads off to create his own career, while a shattered Angier starts working with a man named Cutter to become a much bigger deal than Borden. They both struggle for quite a while, popping up in each other’s lives to try and ruin them. Angier arrives at a show of Borden’s where he’s doing a bullet-catch trick, and loads a real bullet into is, shooting off two of Borden’s fingers, and Borden breaks one of Angier’s tricks, causing him to get blackballed from several theaters. They’re both surviving, and they try to move on with their lives. Borden meets and marries a woman named Sarah and they have a daughter, and Angier starts a relationship with his new assistant Oliva. But none of their tricks are really catapulting them into super-stardom, like they had hoped.
Until Borden comes up with a fantastic new trick. With the help of a quiet man called Fallon, he brings a new trick that he calls the Transported Man. The trick appears that Borden goes into one cabinet, and immediately comes out of a second cabinet. The trick blows Angier’s mind, and he becomes obsessed with it. Cutter insists that Borden is just using a double, but Angier cannot accept that. But, with no other way to accomplish the trick, Angier decides to find himself a double and rip off Borden’s trick. Cutter and Oliva then find a drunken actor named Root who they are able to clean up enough to become Angier, and he’s able to bring his version of the Transported Man to life, earning even more ire from Borden. Borden then tries to sabotage Angier’s trick, turning Root against him, until things escalate to the point that Angier breaks his leg during one of Borden’s pranks. Angier then decides he needs to escalate things, and tells Olivia to become a spy, joining Borden’s organization to steal the secret. Which backfires! She falls in love with Borden and abandons Angier, but she does give him Borden’s diary, which points to the true secret of his trick. A man named Nikola Tesla.
Angier then flies out to Colorado Springs, where the eccentric inventor is currently living and working on his experiments with electricity. He’s pretty confused about why Angier is visiting him, but he agrees to give it a shot. He thinks he’ll actually be able to create a device that can teleport a human being, and begins working on it, leaving Angier to just wallow in Colorado Springs for quite some time. Back in London, things aren’t going great for Borden. He’s getting increasingly erratic, and his wife thinks that his shifts in mood are too extreme, pushing her to the point of suicide, and leaving Borden a pretty broken person. And things don’t get better when Angier returns to London. Tesla had to flee from America when Thomas Edison’s men came to find him, but he finished Angier’s machine, making it actually do what it’s supposed to. He then starts a new show, using his peculiar machine to send himself through the ether and appear in extraordinary places. And, eventually, Borden takes the bait and comes to watch one of the shows before sneaking behind the scenes to see how he does it. And, when he goes below the stage he finds Angier fall into a tank of water and drown, right as Cutter arrives with the police. Borden is then arrested for Angier’s death, and sentenced to death. While in prison he’s approached by a man representing Lord Caldlow, a rich eccentric who loves magic, and offers to take care of Borden’s daughter in exchange for his secrets. Borden ends up agreeing to this, and is shocked to find that Lord Caldlow is Angier. It turns out that his teleportation machine is actually some sort of cloning machine, and each night it made two Angiers, one of whom who is killed. Borden is then hung at the neck, and Angier prepares to hide in obscurity, since he faked his death, and goes to destroy his machine and the dead clones. But, in doing so he comes across another Borden, who kills him. Because the secret to Borden’s trick this whole time is that he had an identical twin, and the two shared one life, and kind of the life of Fallon, and lived their act. So, with both Borden and Angier technically dead, the final Borden goes to take his daughter and live his life away from magic.
This film truly is something special. It really and truly is my favorite Nolan film of his entire filmography. And it’s really for so many reasons. Yeah, I love the aesthetic of turn of the century magicians, and this is the film that I feel has best used that aesthetic. The acting is great across the board, reaching the point where it may be my favorite performance that both Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale have ever given. The way that Nolan blurs the timelines, so that it matches up with the three steps of the magic trick, thus making the two twists actual magic tricks is incredibly impressive. We all give Inception such praise for its intricately built plot, but in some ways I think that this film is more impressive. Everyone is firing on all cylinders, and it’s just a terrific film.
And I think the primary reason for that is because this is Christopher Nolan’s obsession with film. There’s a certain echelon of director, usually ones who get the somewhat absurd title of “auteur,” who hold a massive amount of sway on their films. They’re controlling, precise, and demanding filmmakers who have specific visions, and will stop at nothing to bring that vision to life. And Nolan is one such director. And, oddly enough, directors who fit in that mold often eventually make a film that is more or less about their own concerns regarding their own obsession. Because that’s really all this movie is about. Both of these men, but Angier in particular, moves the heavens and the earth to make his art the way he wants it to be. All he wants to do is prove that he’s better than Borden, and that he can devise a way to best his trick. And that obsession leads him to become a completely broken person. He falls into the pit of obsession, letting it completely dominate his life. There’s a point in the film when Olivia says to Angier that replicating the trick won’t bring back his wife, and he offhandedly says that he doesn’t even care about the wife anymore, it’s all about the trick. He’s forgotten the most important thing that has ever happened to him, and instead has become a slave to his obsession. And, in a way, it’s Nolan reminding himself that he can’t go this far. He’s allowed to be mildly obsessive, but if he fully gives in, if he goes full-Angier, his life will fall apart. Directors seem fascinated with the siren call of obsession, and those who are more obsessed than others are able to take that fascination and create truly fascinating art from it. Because there but for the grace of God could go Nolan. He’s one of the few directors who could pull this script off, because it’s all about a man falling into the self-destructive pit of obsession, and who better to tell that story than a man who finds himself on the brink of that pit all the time.
The Prestige was written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, directed by Christopher Nolan, and released by Buena Vista Pictures, 2006.
Categories: Cinematic Century