There has been a kind of silent rule in classic mystery fiction, from Agatha Christie to John Dickson Carr, that an author must play fair with readers and resolve their stories without resorting to the occult or speculative science. This is not an iron-clad rule, and Carr himself achieved success with a novel, “The Burning Court”, in which a rational solution is turned on its head on the final page to suggest a supernatural one. The basic idea is to give the armchair sleuth an honest chance to solve the mystery before the fictional detective. This honesty involves an agreement that the solution be a realistic possibility in the first place, not a ninth inning addendum invoking alien abductions or Lucifer himself.
“The Prestige”, the Nolan Brothers’ latest attempt to screw with our heads, is clearly constructed as a mystery, but it too breaks the silent rule and becomes something entirely different. The devil is indeed in the details here, and talking too much about the plot will definitely spoil the soup. Basically, “The Prestige” revolves around the rivalry between two obsessed magicians living in London during the late 1800’s, the great Golden Age of theatrical magic. Each wants to be the greatest, and when Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) invents a trick called the “Transported Man”, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) becomes as obsessed as Dr. Frankenstein with figuring out how it’s done.
Angier comes up with his own version, “The New Transported Man”, which due to Angier’s greater theatrical prowess, becomes the talk of the town. Borden, a lesser performer but a great craftsman, is forced to try and compete, calling his version “The Original Transported Man”. Suffice it to say that both Batman and Wolverine are ready to go to very great lengths for their art, and that murder may be the least of all the sins on their souls.
The trick itself is really just a trick after all: A magician enters one box and pops out the other across the stage in a split second. If you think about it, there can only be one solution to it — at least in the physical world. Michael Caine, wonderful as always, plays Cutter, a veteran designer of theatrical illusions who continually makes the point that a trick is nothing once the secret is revealed. The solution is always a simple one and usually terribly mundane. Angier cannot accept this and goes to great lengths to find what he believes is the real secret to Borden’s stunning illusion: The work of scientist Nicola Tesla, played with great calm and subtlety by David Bowie.
The result of Angier’s mad search leads “The Prestige” into the kind of occult and speculative science that renders the rational mystery moot. There is no way for anyone to predict the possibilities of Tesla’s magic box, and what appeared to be a rational mystery along the lines of Conan Doyle is revealed to be more akin to Poe and Lovecraft. This is actually not disappointing at all especially since the Doyle aspect, one of the film’s “shock” reveals, is incredibly obvious.
This swift descent into the fantastique saves us from the tiresome “Mission: Impossible” disguises, and takes the movie into the cinematic territory of Cronenberg and Lynch. While the surprise of “The Prestige” would not be a surprise in the films of Cronenberg and Lynch, it is a complete surprise for the very glum and realist Christopher Nolan, who last turned 2004’s best movie, “Batman Begins”, into the most believable “Batman” film ever made. Nolan is not a director who is interested in flights of fantasy and it’s his somewhat flat, matter-of-fact style that saves the third act of “The Prestige” from inducing fits of laughter.
When laid out and actually examined, the material is a ludicrous Grand Guignol melodrama featuring villainous moustaches and fake beards, machines never seen on earth outside “The Bride of Frankenstein”, Xeroxing taken to the nth degree, and doubles lurking everywhere wearing false noses. Since everything appears to be suspect, I half imagined that the entire cast would be revealed to all be Michael Caine in disguise!
This campy tale is based on a novel by Christopher Priest, and attempts to add weight to itself by mirroring the destructive competition between the two magicians with the private war between Tesla and Thomas Edison — the purity of Tesla to the business sense of Edison. But it’s still just a thin man in a fat suit, and Nolan twists up the pretzel even further through his trademark time shifting, and adding an epistolary element as well, shifting narrative voices between the private journals of Angier and Borden.
It all sounds very confusing, but is really pretty linear. Just don’t look too hard for Borges or Kafka here; John Huston’s “The List of Adrian Messenger” and Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth” are the true spiritual ancestors of “The Prestige”. Both are stylish and witty contraptions without the heavy moral illusions Nolan hangs on his film. This sounds as though I were criticizing the approach; but on the contrary, I think the fact that Nolan took this batshit story seriously is what saves it from vanishing into thin air. On paper, “The Prestige” must have seemed to be ideal material for a stylish showman like De Palma or Bryan Singer’s light touch in “The Usual Suspects”. But it’s such a whack job story that really only a steady and sure hand at the wheel could steer this ship safely to shore.
Any serious discussion about “themes” is total nonsense. “The Prestige” is a cinematic trick, nothing more, and the deadpan seriousness is part of the effect, and not an end in itself. The characters of Borden and Angier demonstrate this idea very succinctly. Borden’s technical brilliance cannot overcome his lack of grand showmanship, while the slicker Angier is all show and no heart. Nolan wishes to appear as Borden, but in reality the film he has produced is really just Angier in a Borden disguise.
“The Prestige” has a very clever screenplay, indeed. The brothers Nolan have taken the structure of the classic magic act: The “Pledge”, the “Turn” and the “Prestige” and used it for the three acts of their film. “The Prestige” is the part where the magician brings back whatever he made disappear, but with some kind of dazzling flourish. It is in this act that the narrative spins off into very strange directions, and it is to the Nolans’ credit that the film does not simply get crushed under the weight of all the Deus ex Machina, and is in fact saved by its very faux sincerity.
Now, it’s been several days since I saw the film and I must say that I understand it less now than I did when the credits rolled. At the time, I was sure everything in the film was quite clear, but this morning I am not so sure. There are some troubling details; things that I am sure were meant to suggest a more complex reading.
If you’ve seen the film, think back on Borden’s scenes and try to figure out just why he acts or reacts in certain contradictory ways. Did he tie a certain knot one way or was it really the other? Actually, his scenes with his wife, played very sympathetically by Rebecca Hall, are the only truly human ones in the film. The only moment of true human drama is part of this subplot whose revelatory trick makes you ache for a deeper movie about deception. Scarlett Johansson appears in her 700th film this year and her character is completely ambiguous to me now. Is she sent by Borden to spy on Angier, or by Angier to spy on Borden? As for the film’s final shots, I have to say that I get it, I don’t get it, and I think I get it.
If I haven’t mentioned 2006’s other magic man movie, “The Illusionist”, it’s because I don’t see what is to be gained from the comparison. Each has its own qualities and each its own goals. “The Illusionist” is a much more old fashioned film with a haunting atmosphere, while “The Prestige” is modernist from the start, telling its narrative through fragmentation and never letting us get too close to the heart of the characters so we can stand back and marvel at the narrative trickery.
In the end, “The Prestige” is the kind of film the mentor and engineer Cutter (Caine) might have made were he a filmmaker. A coldly calculated, carefully constructed machine designed purely to amuse and delight, and then to be easily forgotten once the applause dies down. The film, shot by Nolan’s “Batman Begins” cinematographer Wally Pfister, is beautiful and dark. The performances are all excellent, with Bowie making me wish once again that the man committed more of his time to acting. And Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, is a pleasure to watch even without computer enhancement.
The true moral weight of Nolan’s previous films, including “Batman Begins”, is not to be found in “The Prestige”. To some, the sudden shift in narrative style for the third act might seem to be a cheat, but isn’t that what magic is anyway?
Christopher Nolan (director) / Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan (screenplay), Christopher Priest (novel)
CAST: Hugh Jackman …. Robert Angier
Christian Bale …. Alfred Borden
Michael Caine …. Cutter
Piper Perabo …. Julia McCullough
Rebecca Hall …. Sarah
Scarlett Johansson …. Olivia Wenscombe
Samantha Mahurin …. Jess
David Bowie …. Nikola Tesla
Andy Serkis …. Alley