In a year that also spawned two other movies about magic and illusion, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is by far the best. It is also one of the best movies of 2006, though it has gone generally unnoticed since and its magic (no pun intended) has been overlooked. It is a movie that doesn’t take its audience for fools. It makes us think, from beginning to end, and then a bit more after the credits roll. Our brains are constantly working, trying desperately to work out its secrets. When the payoff comes at the end, we are not disappointed by it, because we’ve been waiting for it for the past two hours. We want the payoff to come. We want to know if we’ve been successful at our guessing game.
The story is a sad one. And it’s also quite unnerving. Two young magicians in Victorian London start out as helpers from the crowd. One of them is happy to enjoy the spectacle of magic, the other is unsatisfied with complacency. The former is Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), who loves magic for what it is: Entertainment. The latter is Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), and he believes that audiences grow smarter the more times they see a trick performed. He wants to push the boundaries. Robert does not. Needless to say, they grow apart, and eventually become rivals. This rivalry is what gives The Prestige enormous punch. It’s a magical arms race between two outstanding illusionists that grows and develops into sickly obsessions — I want to know how he does that trick! How does he do it?!
The trick that really ignites this spark is something called The Transported Man, an illusion of sorts created by Alfred that has him walking through a door at one end of the stage and inexplicably walking out another at the other end. In essence, he crosses the length of the stage in a split second. How? Robert plans to find out. He cannot have his former best friend outdo him. He becomes a recluse, bound to Alfred’s notebook that his seductive assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) steals. In it are all of Alfred’s secrets, or at least what he believes to be Alfred’s secrets. He decodes the cryptic writing and traces the method to Nikola Tesla, a quirky scientist responsible for the discovery of alternating currents. Tesla, of course, is a real character based on a real man, and his laboratory up in the Rockies looks more like a guarded fortress than a place of creativity and logic. Robert wants Tesla to build something for him, something he believes Tesla helped Alfred build some years earlier. The details of this thing, the way it works, and how it plugs into Jonathan and Christopher Nolan’s flawless screenplay, I will not divulge. It would be a sin to divulge such sacred information. The joy of watching The Prestige is in how little you must know before you go into it. Though, to be sure, the movie provides enough confusion and misdirection to lead even the most knowledgable astray.
I watched the movie last night with my mother and brother, probably for the tenth time or so, and only last night did we completely figure out its little details. Yes, it is one of those movies you must see many times over if you want its narrative to flow smoothly. Blink once and you’ll miss a vital line of dialogue, or an important change in voice, or a character switch that happens right under your nose but remains invisible. The screenplay is so detailed, so ripe with intelligence and lovely developments that the journey to the end is just as thought-provoking as the end itself.
Jackman and Bale are impeccable, but Bale is perhaps a coin trick or two better. He is so right for the part that now I can see no other actor playing Alfred Borden. Only recently labelled a method actor, Bale submerges himself into this role completely. His performance is so powerful and subtle at the same time that he almost makes it seem real, real enough to have earned him an Academy Award (in what I believe to be a major oversight, he wasn’t even nominated). And the voice. Listen to his voice. The Nolans drop hints in there that, if picked up on, could explain the entire movie for you. He captures brilliantly the internal turmoil inherent in trying to live out your profession. He doesn’t just exercise magic; he becomes magic. He lives the illusion.
Earlier this year I watched Danny Boyle’s Trance, and while it had nothing to do with magic, it delivered a twist towards the end that explained its confusing story’s many sharp turns. But it was poorly done. It made me feel stupid, as if I had to sit through two hours of directionless gibberish just so I could smile at the end and say, “Oh, so that’s what happened!”. Maybe Boyle should have learnt a thing or two from Nolan, because The Prestige never lets you think you’re stupid. In fact, it makes you feel smart, like a detective sniffing out clues and tracing leads. When the twist arrives, we are not upset. We are laughing at ourselves for not solving it sooner. And then we realise that maybe magic does exist.
Best Moment | “I don’t care about my wife. I care about finding his secrets”. Or gradually discovering little hints throughout the movie the more times I see it. Bale’s performance. The subtlety of the humour. Oh, so many.
Worst Moment | Nope.