Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is by no means perfect. Rough around the edges with a plot that requires an entire suspension of disbelief, the film was released in between Nolan’s hugely successfully Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and it is probably because of this that The Prestige is largely underrated despite its star cast (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman).
Loosely adapted from Christopher Priest’s novel of the same name, The Prestige, focuses on the rivalry between two magicians in Victorian era England. Angier (Hugh Jackman) favours a more dramatic manner of stage craft, performing each trick with a flourish. Borden (Christian Bale) opts for a rather more direct style, meaning for the tricks to speak for themselves. The pair’s rivalry sparks when Angier’s young wife dies during a trick in which Borden has a hand in.
The Prestige is not merely a depiction of rivalry and revenge however, and to describe it thus would sell it short. What is really at the heart of the film is the central conceit: how dedicated are you to your own craft? How far will you go in order to succeed in your craft? As it transpires (and this is simply put as the film is rather wonderfully convoluted) Borden has been living his trick every day. He and his twin, who has been ever present in the film’s narrative lurking in the shadows, have lived as one man in order to present their trick ‘The Transported Man’ in which Borden appears to instantaneously transport himself across the stage. Angier, desperate to discover the secret to this trick, goes to great lengths in order to replicate it consulting the inventor Tesla. Angier instructs Tesla to build a contraption that will transport him in the same manner. Tesla fails in this endeavour, but in his research creates a cloning machine which Angier quickly adopts for his use.
What is really fascinating about the film’s narrative is the ingenious structure: Nolan very clearly signposts to us throughout the film that we should be anticipating a trick, a reveal of some manner, and yet when it does finally come at the film’s conclusion we are left stunned, questioning how it could have ever been conceived: much like Borden and Angier’s audience’s are left questioning the magician’s trick. Borden comments early on in the film’s narrative upon a fellow magician who in the public eye has belied his true young age, acting the decrepit old man in order to carry out an impressive trick on-stage. Borden notes to Angier the dedication that has taken place, and it is only retrospectively that we realise he is too commenting on his own sacrifice. Similarly, Michael Caine’s Cutter, the stage engineer (ingenieur), repeatedly tells Angier that the only way Borden’s ‘Transported Man’ can be carried out is through the use of a double, which as we later discover, is entirely accurate.
Nolan posits himself as a magician too, waiting until the last moment to reveal the meaning behind the heavy references to the film’s central notion. He, in a meta-like fashion, repeatedly refers to the film’s structure through the description of the structure of a trick. As Cutter states, ‘every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”…The second act is called “The Turn”. …every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.”.