My reviews have become a little more sparse of late, more sparse than I’d like. The reason is not that I haven’t seen anything I’ve liked. Quite the contrary – I have half written reviews of three films that I thoroughly enjoyed, two of which I think are true greats, sitting unfinished on my hard drive for a couple of weeks. The reason they are unfinished is not because I didn’t enjoy them, no, but because they haven’t made me think. It’s been a while since I walked out of the cinema, thinking the film over and over in my head, slotting all the pieces into place – since Moon, in fact. They haven’t consumed my thoughts for hours, or even days afterwards. The Prestige, however, does.
What follows here will come in two sections. The first will be spoiler free, the second will not, and will be less review than discussion. Please do not read the second section unless you have seen the film, you will be spoiling a true classic for yourself.
The Prestige is the film that Christopher Nolan made with his brother Jonathan in between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, starring Hugh Jackman and his Batman stars Christian Bale and Michael Caine. It concerns a bitter rivalry between two stage magicians, Rupert Angier, aka The Great Danton (Jackman) and Alfred Borden, aka The Professor (Bale), at the turn of the 20th Century.
The performances all around are nothing short of superb, with Jackman the best he’s ever been, before or since. The myopic, destructive fire of vengeance burns deep within Angier, a fire that eventually consumes him, and it is brilliantly realised by Jackman. Bale is equally great as Borden, whose complex, determined character cannot be fully comprehended until the last moments of the film. What is interesting about the rivalry between the two is that there is never any doubt but that Borden is the better magician, but equally that Angier is the better showman. It is in wishing to possess the others skill that is the undoing of both.
The supreme achievement of The Prestige is to be a film with lots of magic tricks, but the film is not about the tricks. But while you’re focused on trying to figure out the trick over here, the film is performing the real trick over there. The film is not about the tricks, the film is the trick. (If that makes no sense, go watch the film and re-read it – it should fall into place.)
It can be a little difficult to follow the shifting timelines at first, but stick with it and you will be rewarded with one of the most underrated gems of the decade. Simply superb. A+.
*** Here starts the second section, so here be spoilers. ***
One of the most wonderful things about the film for me is the Angier copies. I say copies and not clones, because there is a subtle, but hugely important, difference between the two. Clones are not the same person. A clone does not retain the memories of the original – they are genetically identical, but are different due to experiences and development. Clones are like identical twins.
The copies are just that – complete and total copies, two of the same person. Same memories, same experiences, same everything. The concept of original and copy is irrelevant – as both are identical in every way, they are equally both the copy and original.
So, when Angier walks to the machine, wondering whether he will be the man in the box or the prestige, he fails to realise that he is both eventualities in one; that when he steps in the machine, he will fall below the stage and drown and walk out to reveal himself to the audience. Obviously, only the prestige survives to remember this, so to him, it does feel like he is taking his life in his hands each time, but it is only this eventuality played out over and over again. It is, in fact, inevitable that at the end, there will be one copy left who will have the memories of having experienced the entire thing; but the question of whether or not it is the original Angier is irrelevant. The notion of original no longer makes sense.
Compare this to the film’s “clones”, if you will – Borden and Fallon, Fallon and Borden. As twins, they are genetically identical, but there experiences make them different. Look at the women they love. Look at their missing fingers. Look at their relationship with each other. They are two men masquerading as one. They only live as Borden, Fallon is an empty shell, a disguise, a hiding place. When one of them dies, one of them truly dies – a distinct personality is lost. That is not so with Angiers.
So I thank you for granting me this indulgence of sharing with you some of the things that consume my mind every time I watch The Prestige, and I leave you with this observation: the only trick not revealed in the film is that of Nicoli Tesla. After all, like Cutter says, he has done what magicians only claim to do. Real magic.