Christopher Nolan, easily one of the best directors working today, likes to play with his audience’s perception. In “Memento” the audience follows a character whose memory should never be trusted as it vanishes after 10 minutes. In “Inception” the characters navigate through a world that is an illusion within an illusion within another illusion. Even Batman in his Dark Knight trilogy has a flair for the theatrics. Hence it makes perfect sense for Nolan to have made “The Prestige” (2006) a movie about feuding magicians. In a film where two rivals try to outwit each other with the world’s best magic trick, don’t be surprised if the ending has fooled you.
Released one year after “Batman Begins” and two years before “The Dark Knight,” “The Prestige” showed Nolan had more than one trick up his sleeve. I saw it during my first year at the University of Sherbrooke while spending one of my holidays with my mom in Quebec City. You know you have a good movie when audience members are discussing the plot long after the credits are rolling and in the case of “The Prestige” my mom had a few questions. I won’t lie, it does make me feel slightly cleverer when I can offer an explanation for a movie’s plot and other people are lost. However with Nolan’s tale magic you have to pay close attention because like an actual magician, the director leaves a few misdirects along the way.
Set in late 19th century London, the story follows the rivalry between magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). Early on we see the rivalry does not end well, as Borden is on trial for the murder of Angier. Flashback to a time when they were learning their trade under Milton the Magician (real-life stage magician Ricky Jay) and engineer John Cutter (Michael Cain). Along with Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) they were all friends, until a stage accident causes Julia’s death onstage. Blaming Borden for the accident, Angier goes his separate way, taking Cutter with him.
With his new assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) Angier becomes The Great Danton, while Borden, with a mysterious assistant of his own, becomes The Professor. Learning that Borden has dared to find a wife (Rebecca Hall), Angier escalates their professional rivalry into a full-scale war. As they sabotage each other’s tricks, fingers are shot and limbs are broken as the audience watches in horror.
When Borden begins performing a new trick called The Transported Man, in which he seemingly teleports from one end of the stage to the other, Angier becomes obsessed with cracking its secret. Using Olivia as a spy, he obtains a clue that sends him to America and to the home of Nikola Tesla (David Bowie, appropriately charismatic), one of the most influential inventors of the 19th century.
This is where the movie takes a left turn into science fiction territory. Until meeting Tesla, all of the tricks used by the two rivals had a logical explanation, yet Tesla and his assistant Mr. Alley (Andy Serkis) show Angier a machine so incredible that it would belong in the 24th century, not the 19th. It allows Angier to perform an even more amazing version of The Transported Man, yet the amazing thing is that Borden never made use of science fiction in his trick.
Could it be real magic? That question is raised a few times throughout the film, but as with movie magic, it is all smoke and mirrors. Angier believes Borden leaves fake clues to misdirect Olivia when she is spying on him, which is what Nolan is doing throughout the movie. There are clues, especially in Bale’s performance and in his physical appearance in certain key scenes in the movie.
Look closely and you might guess Nolan’s big reveal before the curtain falls. The use of science fiction is a bit of a cheat, but since Angier is the only one using Tesla’s machine, perhaps Nolan’s message is that true magicians rely on practical effects, not science. Within this tragic tale of feuding illusionists, I believe there is an ode to movie engineers.