March 6, 2007
In the cinematic duel between two films about 19th century magicians, The Prestige (2006) certainly had the advantage over The Illusionist (2006) with big name stars, a large budget and a major studio backing it. The film was directed by Christopher Nolan and continues one of his thematic preoccupations with the nature of illusion and artifice. There was the protagonist with fractured short-term memory in Memento (2000) and the sleep-deprived cop in Insomnia (2002) who begins to question the things he sees. So, it makes sense that he would be drawn to the art of magic as it is all about illusion and playing around with the differences between what is real and what is not. “Are you watching closely?” are the first lines spoken and are actually instructions for the audience. You must pay close attention to everything that is said and that happens in this movie.
Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale) are fellow magicians and also good friends who work with Mr. Cutter (Caine), a man who designs elaborate magic tricks. However, when one known as “The Transformed Man” goes horribly wrong, it results in one of them dead and the other on death row for murder. The film proceeds to go back in time through a series of flashbacks and journal entries and examine the events leading up to the tragic trick. The two magicians started off as ambitious illusionists trying to make it. Both come from mysterious pasts with Borden coming across as hungrier and more driven to be the best magician in the world. For him, it comes more naturally while Angier has to work harder, always chasing after his friend.
Borden believes in complete immersion in his art to the point of self-sacrifice in order to perform real magic. He is also more ruthless in his methods and this includes accidentally killing their assistant (and also Angier’s wife). Her death terminates their partnership and their friendship. Borden may be a brilliant magician but he’s a lousy showman while Angier wants to be a true illusionist and a premiere entertainer. As their careers take off, they become embroiled in an escalating competition of one-upmanship and end up seeking out Nikola Tesla (Bowie), a genius scientist who discovered a new way to harness electricity. They aim to use this knowledge to create the ultimate magic trick.
Christian Bale has never been afraid to play unlikable characters (see American Psycho) and he certainly plays the villain of this story as he does everything he can to make sure Angier fails. Hugh Jackman plays an obsessive magician but with more of showmanship streak and who seems to have more compassion for those around him. However, any kind of sympathy we might have for him gradually erodes over time as his hatred for Borden consumes him as he does everything he can to best and ruin his rival.
Nolan’s film features some wonderfully eye-catching imagery, like a snowy field populated by large light bulbs that light up without wires or Tesla’s fog-enshrouded compound. However, The Prestige’s real strength lies in how it shows how jealousy and obsession consume people and make them act irrationally and in doing so destroying their lives and those of the people around them. The film plays on our perception and is clearly conceived as an elaborate puzzle complete with subtle plot twists that force you to pay close attention to everything that is said and done. After all, movies themselves are an illusion that dazzle and entertain us. “Are you watching closely?”
“Conjuring the Past” takes a look at the production design and how it was intended to create something approximating the “Victorian era of Tokyo.” In other words, a very busy, chaotic London rife with advertising. This extra also examines the attention to period detail of the film’s set and costume design.
“The Visual Maze” takes a brief look at the cinematography. Nolan employed a lot of hand-held camerawork to capture the energy of the actor’s performances and to go against the grain of how most period films are shot.
“Metaphors of Deception” takes a look at adapting the novel to the big screen and how magic is a metaphor for the art of filmmaking.
“Tesla: The Man who Invented the 20th Century” examines the fascinating historical figure of Nikola Tesla. He was an inventor/scientist ahead of his time.
“Resonances” is a brief clip of Nolan hoping that his film resonates with audience long after they see it.
Finally, there is “The Art of the The Prestige,” a gallery of stills, costumes, on-the-set photos and poster art.