The Prestige: fussy plot with flat characters turns on class and cultural rivalries of its setting

Christopher Nolan, “The Prestige” (2006)

Rather fussy if good-looking film about duplicity and duplications, duelling and an all-consuming devotion to one’s art, “The Prestige” is a crime thriller with science fantasy elements. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two magicians apprenticed to master magician Milton (Ricky Jay) with Cutter (Michael Caine) as his engineer. Much of the film is told in flashbacks and at its beginning Borden is being tried and sentenced for the murder of Angier. The film then ducks to the events that lead to Borden’s trial: Borden complains to Angier and Cutter about Milton always playing safe with the same old magic tricks and Angier and Cutter put up reasons for Milton not wanting to risk his popularity and reputation via new and possibly dangerous tricks. One night a performance goes wrong and Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) dies; Angier blames Borden for the woman’s death and from then on the two men go all out to ruin one another’s performances, career and personal life, and steal ideas from each other as well. Then Borden surprises everyone with his act The Transported Man which Cutter believes must involve Borden using a double; Angier then tries to go one better with his own doubles but his act never sustains itself due to his own jealousies and Borden trying to wreck it.

Angier then pursues the famous scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to get him to make a teleportation machine that he believes Borden uses in his version of Angier’s trick. Tesla, needing the money after being financially wiped out by Thomas Edison, makes the machine and Angier takes possession of it before Edison’s myrmidons destroy Tesla’s laboratory.

Angier reappears in London with an updated version of his Transported Man trick: the teleportation machine creates duplicates of Angier who drown in water cells beneath trapdoors. Borden goes below stage during one such performance and, still feeling guilty over Julia’s death, tries to save one such duplicate. He is immediately framed for murdering Angier, is tried and sent to jail. While in jail, he is visited by an agent of Lord Caldlow (the true identity of Angier) who offers to care for his child Jess if he will yield his secrets. Borden is given Angier’s diary and realises he was framed. Unfortunately this news isn’t enough to save him from the gallows and Caldlow/Angier takes custody of the now-orphaned Jess, her mother having committed suicide earlier in the film.

It would seem that at this point Angier has the upper hand over Borden but things don’t quite pan out his way. At least conventional expectations about who’s the hero and who’s the villain are dispensed with: both Angier and Borden are fairly reprehensible men not above using the women who love them – Julia, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) and Sarah (Rebecca Hall) – as unwilling pawns in their private spat. Both Angier and Borden make enormous sacrifices in their mutual self-destruction pact and both lose the love of two women. In their duel, Angier and Borden reveal themselves as hollow and amoral. The film’s moral centre resides in Cutter who must decide between being loyal to Angier or to Borden: whichever he chooses is important for the sake of Borden’s child Jess who could end up in a poor-house for orphans if he chooses unwisely.

The acting from the two male leads is solid and the supporting cast acquit themselves well. The characters though are so sketchy in a plot with so many complications and twists that perhaps it’s too much to expect the actors to devote time to drawing out some positive traits that could endear their characters to the audience. In this respect, Caine probably comes closest to making a real human being out of his character.

The film pays much attention to historical detail and captures something of the spirit of the late 1800s with its atmosphere of rivalry on several levels: during this period, the US, Germany and other nations were competing with the British Empire for colonies, trade opportunities, building railways and developing industries; and Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were locked in a professional rivalry, though it wasn’t as violent as the film suggests. At the time the film is set – it must have been some time about 1899 or after as Angier visits Tesla in Colorado Springs where Tesla moved in 1899 – there were several inventors around the world engaged in building aeroplanes and trying to make the first controlled flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle. There is another rivalry alluded to in the film, and that is one of class: Borden represents the working class, willing to get his hands dirty, adventurous and on the look-out for new ideas; Angier represents the upper class who sees no reason to change and adapt to a new world. It is inevitable that these men, originally friends, should clash; their duel is that of the old established order with a particular set of values being challenged by a new order and new set of values. Both the old and new orders have their attractions but also their faults and at the centre of both, ethics can be lacking. The job for the audience is to decide which side they’re on and what values they should bring to whatever claims their loyalty.

There is yet another rivalry at work and that is the rivalry between magic, deception and secrecy on the one hand, and science, technology and openness on the other, and the film makes much of the fact that science and technology to people untutored in their principles, logic and workings can appear as magic; at the same time, magic is explained throughout the movie with logic.

As with other Christopher Nolan films I’ve seen, “The Prestige” substitutes a convoluted plot with many themes and plays and variations on the themes for rather flat characters lacking in feeling. Although the film is good-looking and reflects its setting quite faithfully, it tends to be of a piece with other Nolan films like “Inception” and the Dark Knight trilogy, and might even be seen as a test run for Bale and Caine for their roles in the Dark Knight films.

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