A hand reaches into a cage and grasps a small bird. An elderly man is performing a magic trick to amuse a small girl. As he goes through the motions of making the bird disappear, we hear a voiceover explaining that there are three parts to a trick, the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. Basically, the magician shows you something ordinary, and then makes something extraordinary happen. The voice goes on to tell us that even though we may think we’re trying to figure out the secret, we’ll never find it.
“Because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really wanna know.”
Christopher Nolan likes to explore the way we perceive things. And beyond that, he’s interested in why we perceive things the way we do. Memento seems to be about a man who suffers from a rare memory disorder that keeps him from understanding his own life. By the end of the film, it appears that the disorder may be his way of coping with a past he can’t bear to face. Inception follows its main character as he dives into peoples’ unconscious minds to unlock their secrets. But as the story progresses we realize that his quests always end up bringing him face to face with his own demons.
Nolan never dug deeper than he did in The Prestige, a story about two magicians who spend their lives playing with the audience’s perceptions. Robert Angier and Alfred Borden are constantly competing with each other, both onstage and off. Angier is a showman, a natural performer who knows how to dazzle audiences. Borden is a thinker, always analyzing what he sees, living his life mostly inside his head. In different ways, both men make huge sacrifices in order to achieve the acclaim they seek. They both want to astound the world. But their rivalry isn’t just a contest between two ambitious performers. It’s wound up tightly with a bitter personal feud. Angier blames Borden for the death of his wife, and is determined to take revenge. Their battle goes far beyond competitive one-upmanship, starting with violent, vengeful pranks, and evolving into maddeningly elaborate mind games.
While all this is going on, the film is also playing some mind games with us. The Prestige is a dazzling, extended display of cinematic sleight of hand. There are plenty of films that keep stringing us along with twist after twist, and while they’re sometimes fun, they usually don’t have much going on beneath the surface. In The Prestige, Nolan uses these twists to make us question the way we see things, and asks why we see things the way we do.
The movie is based on the book of the same name by Christopher Priest.* Nolan wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, and I gather they made some significant changes both in terms of plot and perspective. In the film, the Nolans seem to be making the case that magic isn’t so much a matter of creating an illusion as it is playing with perception. The magician prepares the audience by setting up a certain frame of reference, and then the audience is astonished to see something that doesn’t conform to their expectations. What they’re actually witnessing may not be so remarkable in itself, but because of the way they’ve been led to perceive things, it seems like a miracle.
It’s a sign of how the good a performance is when it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. And it’s a sign of how good the casting is when all the performers seem absolutely right in their roles. Before I get into talking about the actors, I’d like to give credit to casting director John Papsidera. He found exactly the right person for every part, starting with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. Jackman’s Angier has the looks and the charm, the arrogance and the insecurity of a popular performer who’s desperate for the audience’s approval. He shows us how an ambitious young man is gradually consumed by an obsession he can’t control. Bale was the perfect choice for Borden. The actor often seems a little distant onscreen, a little withdrawn. This is absolutely right for Borden, who is always on guard, always protecting his secrets. He may have a wife and a child and a mistress, but he doesn’t give himself fully to any of them. Bale’s reserve makes it clear that Borden doesn’t quite connect with the world around him. His mind is always on magic.
But as I said, the whole cast is impressive. Rebecca Hall plays Borden’s wife Sarah with a tender sweetness, which makes it all the more awful to see her slowly broken by the misery of trying to share her life with a man who can’t share his. Scarlett Johanson has a striking assurance as Olivia Wenscombe, Angier’s on-stage assistant. This is a woman who’s smart enough and tough enough to survive in a world run by men. Michael Caine is obviously a favorite of Nolan’s, but the director has never given Caine a part as rich and complex as this one. Caine’s performance as Cutter, the aging sorcerer’s apprentice, is a reminder of how gifted the actor is. Cutter is part father, part hustler, part counselor, part con artist. He starts off as a mentor to both Angier and Borden, a crusty old pro teaching them the tricks of the trade. As time goes on, he gets drawn into and ground down by their rivalry. Caine plays the part with a straightforward simplicity, and at the same time brings a thousand subtle shadings that make the character absolutely real.
And then there’s David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. While Bowie painstakingly assumes the courtly manner and the measured speech of the legendary scientist, he brings a presence that gives his performance a powerful resonance. Tesla is something of a mythical figure. A brilliant inventor who played a major part in shaping twentieth century technology, he’s largely forgotten today. Of course, his part in the film is fictionalized, but it doesn’t seem far fetched to portray him as a man who stands at the nexus of science and the supernatural. And though we may think of Bowie as a flamboyant rock star, in reality he was a thoughtful, sensitive, orderly man, who spent much of his life exploring the overlapping worlds of art and technology. The two men may not be as different as they seem. Bowie brings a quiet intensity and a deep melancholy to the role of Tesla, a scientist who understands all too well that his inventions have the potential to cause terrible destruction.
While Borden and Angier perform their tricks in brightly lit theatres, much of the actual work they do takes place in dimly lit backstage areas and dingy workshops, away from public view. They take their bows in the spotlight, but they live in a world of shadows. That world in which they work their dark magic was carefully created for the film by production designer Nathan Crowley and art director Kevin Kavanaugh. Cinematographer Wally Pfister’s richly detailed images capture a million subtle shades of grey, brown and black. David Julyan’s dense, brooding orchestral progressions reinforce the feeling that we’re exploring a psychological and moral netherworld. And as I said earlier, the film relies on cinematic sleight of hand to work its own disturbing magic, jumping back and forth in time and using misdirection to shape the way we see things. Lee Smith’s deft, expert editing makes it all appear seamless.
Since The Prestige, Nolan has focussed on making big budget action flicks, which he does pretty well. I think he’s tried in those films to push the boundaries, but in the end they always seem to fall back on familiar Hollywood formulas. When the producers are gambling a hundred million or more on a feature, they generally want the director to give the audience what it’s expecting. The Prestige doesn’t do that. Instead, it plays with the audience’s expectations. It challenges viewers to look for answers, not just to the superficial puzzles posed by the plot, but to deeper questions about who we are and how we see the world. And at the same time, it asks us why we spend our lives searching for answers.
“Because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really wanna know.”
While surfing the net for info to write this post, I came across the web site maintained by the author of The Prestige, Christopher Priest. Apparently he published a whole book about the making of the film, which he called The Magic. And on his site he posted a brief summary of his thoughts on the movie, both positive and negative. I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but it’s fascinating to get his take on the film adaptation. You can read it yourself by clicking on the link below.