As the nineteenth century comes to a close, Robert Angier and Alfred Borden work as shills for a famous magician in London. One trick in the magician’s repertoire involves Angier’s wife, Julia, escaping from a water tank while tied up. The act takes a tragic turn when Julia fails to escape the tank and drowns despite the shills’ best efforts. Furious over the loss of his wife, Angier blames Borden, believing that tying a double knot directly caused this tragedy. Shortly thereafter, the two launch their own careers, fiercely determined to upstage the other in a war that threatens to consume them both.
The Prestige began its life as a novel written by Christopher Priest in 1995. A producer who worked with two English directors, Julian Jarrold and Sam Mendes, approached Mr. Priest for an adaptation of the novel. As they talked, the author said he was impressed with the works of Christopher Nolan, particularly Following and Memento. Shortly thereafter, producer Valerie Dean brought the novel to Mr. Nolan’s attention, who in turn shared it with his older brother, Jonathan. Memento was thought up by Jonathan Nolan as the two of them took a cross-country road trip. With the roles reversed, they began work on this adaptation.
Though told in a more conventional manner than Memento, The Prestige is no less intriguing. Because the catalyst behind the magicians’ rivalry is obviously deeply personal to Angier, they waste no time doing increasingly horrible things to each other. First, Angier sabotages Borden’s bullet catching act, irreparably damaging the latter’s fingers. After that, Borden removes the pillows for a teleportation act Angier was staging, causing him to break his leg when he falls down a trapdoor. The lengths to which these two magicians go to upstage the other denotes a psychotic determination; any loss they may incur along the way is deemed acceptable.
The Prestige features no real magic, yet it does end up invoking Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, which states “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. In his conquest to wreak vengeance on Borden, Angier goes as far as enlisting the help of Nikola Tesla – played by none other than legendary rock musician David Bowie.
Resigning himself as a man ruled by his obsessions, he warns Angier not to end up like him. The magician refuses to listen, and through funding Tesla’s research, the genius engineer invents a machine capable of replicating anything or anyone that enters it.
This is the moment when you realize just how far Angier will go to win his personal war. One of the first scenes is of Borden discovering a drowning Angier in a tank of water. With this extra bit of context, the scene takes on a more sinister tone. Angier’s ambition was to replicate Borden’s Transported Man act, and Tesla’s duplication machine makes it into a reality. Specifically, he clones himself, leaving one version to drown while the other receives the audience’s applause. The exact logistics are left deliberately vague; exactly what does he experience when he performs the trick? Does he kill himself every time? Does the original consciousness transfer to the clone? Is it a fifty-fifty chance every time? The fact that it’s not explained adds to the film’s mystique, which is fitting given its primary theme. More importantly, Angier’s act traps Borden in a no-win situation. When Borden inevitably investigates how the trick is performed, he is framed for Angier’s murder. Angier is then allowed to continue living as Lord Caldlow, an aristocrat often mentioned throughout the film, but never seen up until the reveal.
What I feel to be this story’s greatest strength is how much the audience is always switching sides. Both magicians are deeply flawed characters, but from the onset, you’re sympathetic towards Angier. His wife is killed as an arguable result of Borden’s actions. Borden, for his part, is entirely apathetic to Angier’s loss, which cements him as the villain. It gets even worse when he callously drives his wife to suicide by cheating on her with Angier’s assistant, Olivia. However, Angier proceeds to dash any sympathy when he proceeds to kidnap Borden’s daughter as the latter is on death row.
Suddenly, when Borden is hanged and Angier is about to walk away the victor, the former ends up getting the last laugh from beyond the grave. As if on cue, one of Borden’s cohorts, Fallon, shows up and shoots Angier in the heart. As it turns out, two people share the identity Alfred Borden: a pair of identical twins. Though a twist such as this is usually rather trite, it’s foreshadowed brilliantly. When Angier sabotaged the bullet catching trick, blowing off two of Borden’s fingers, the twin had the same two fingers cut off to preserve the illusion. Interestingly, his wife notices his hand is bleeding more than it should be by that point. On a grander scale, it ties in nicely with a trick showcased earlier by Borden involving killing one dove in order to produce the illusion that it survived. Similarly, one twin sacrifices himself so the other may live. Fittingly, the one who lives is the only one interested in ending the cycle of revenge.
Much like how a magician counts on the audience not paying attention to the assistants, the twins are able to hide their secret by creating another person: Borden’s enigmatic ingenieur Fallon. Aside from one moment in which Angier has him buried alive, the average audience member will barely notice he exists the first time around. This is because he is the twin not currently posing as Alfred Borden. In order to maintain the illusion, he barely ever speaks. While many twists only involve keeping a secret from the real-life audience and awkwardly writing around it, the twin’s motivation for being silent as Fallon makes sense within the fictional universe as well. All it would take is for Fallon to begin speaking at length for the deception to be revealed.
It is said that every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first is “The Pledge” wherein the magician shows the audience a mundane object – be it a deck of cards, a bird, or a human. Having established the actors in this performance, the second part, “The Turn”, begins. This is when the magician takes the ordinary object and makes it do something extraordinary, banking on the fact that the audience wants to be fooled. After all, anyone can make something disappear. Making it reappear before everyone’s eyes? That’s the tricky part. This is what is called “The Prestige”. It’s the point where the audience sees something shocking – something they’ve never seen before. If done properly, the audience will bestow upon the magician their applause.
With The Prestige, Christopher Nolan proved quite the expert magician himself, creating something that becomes an entirely different experience upon watching it a second time. Any competent director can get a good performance out of their actors and actresses. Getting not one but two actors to convincingly play multiple distinct identities within the same narrative is an achievement few directors have accomplished. If you needed any evidence of how dynamic Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman could be as actors, watching The Prestige is all the proof you need.
To me, the reception The Prestige received in 2006 demonstrated the single greatest flaw of aggregate review websites such as Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. In theory, these resources are very helpful, allowing the audience to know ahead of time what is and isn’t worth seeing. However, this proposition only works under two conditions: it must be a film critics universally love from the very beginning and it has to stand the test of time. This is because these websites only measure the conclusions of critics as they were on day one. What happens if they decide they collectively came down to the wrong conclusion and that the film they ignored was actually a masterpiece? The answer is that, even when a film in such a scenario receives its vindication, it’s stuck with its initially underwhelming scores, giving would-be watchers the wrong impression.
It’s worth knowing that this doesn’t apply to films made before the internet existed. After all, Charles Laughton’s classic The Night of the Hunter was reviled by fans and critics alike when it debuted in 1955. The Rotten Tomatoes score of 98% only reflects what people thought of it when an entry was made on that website. Had some sort of similar aggregated metric existed back then, it would’ve been lucky to surpass the 20% mark. As it stands, it had already received its retrospective vindication by the time of the website’s inception in 1998 and the initial scorn had been left to vanish into the ether.
While never outright hated, The Prestige was met with a lukewarm response when it debuted on the silver screen in 2006. It wasn’t until critics and cinephiles watched the film a few more times that they decided they did indeed let a masterpiece fall by the wayside. The result? A film that received decent, if not stand-out scores of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes and 66% on Metacritic suddenly found itself on many lists regarding the best works of the 2000s with some going as far as calling it Christopher Nolan’s crowning achievement. Though I myself don’t feel The Prestige is better than Memento, there is more to it than the initial reviews would have you believe, and it is absolutely worth watching.
Final Score: 8/10