“Are you watching closely?” With this question, Christopher Nolan’s new movie invites viewers to participate, or to be aware of your participation, in the storytelling. While the narrator, an “ingénieur,” or magic trick designer, named Cutter (Michael Caine), goes on to describe the three parts of a trick, the film shows you his audience, a beautiful little girl whose face reflects the wonder, tension, and delight inspired by well managed tricks. In this case, a tiny bird disappears, then reappears suddenly, emerging from Cutter’s hand in a delicate burst of feathery yellow-and-white.
The Prestige offers a series of similar pleasures, though if you are watching closely, these have less to do with twists of plot (derived in part from the source novel by Christopher Priest) than details of character and performance (such details being thematic). The most obvious point of departure is the competition between two obsessive men, initiated (rather tediously) over a woman’s dead body. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are aspiring magicians in turn-of-the-20th-century London, initially working as audience plants/assistants to Milton (Ricky Jay).
The two men’s differences are obvious and superficial: Alfred is blunt and focused only on his art, his Cockney accent hinting at his underclass roots and muscular approach to magic; Robert’s a lesser magician but a more prodigious showman, with acute ambition and a lovely wife, Julia (Piper Perabo), who works as Milton’s onstage assistant. One evening a trick goes terribly wrong, such that Julia is unable to make her routine escape from a water tank, having to do with a knot tied by Alfred. Her drowning becomes instant, awful spectacle, her face pale and puffy until at last the men manage to break the glass, dumping water and pale corpse onto the stage as audience members cry out.
In this moment, Robert and Alfred’s entwined fate is sealed. They go on to compete over losses, tricks, and audiences, in a structure that has each reading the other’s stolen journal at different points in time in order to decipher meanings and mechanics (in one case this is literal, as Alfred writes in a code based on a keyword). Each believes he gleans insight in the writings, as when Robert describes Alfred’s “fickle and extraordinary nature” and Alfred sees in Robert a focus on revenge.
In fact, their desires duplicate one another. Within the overarching timeframe, one man is on trial for the murder of the other, their efforts to outdo one another knotted into such a puzzle that they’re unable to maintain any measure of “professionalism.” Indeed, Alfred describes their relationship as that of “two men devoted to an illusion,” the precise dimensions of which remain elusive. They make no bones about their efforts to steal one another’s tricks (it is apparently common practice to steal or purchase tricks). Robert goes so far as to name his version of “The Transported Man,” Alfred’s crowd-pleasing finale, “The New Transported Man” (Alfred then renames his show “The Original Transported Man”).
This trick and its titling are at the center of the film’s thematic concerns with replication, movement, and deception. As the mechanical possibilities for tricks expand and shift, indeed, as the Victorian Age gives way to the Machine Age, the men are increasingly hard-pressed to keep up. Their trick designs become more complicated and more expensive. It’s no longer good enough to make birds disappear and reappear (the film shows the bloody means by which this is achieved in the trick’s most primitive form), as audiences complain during performances that they’ve “seen it before.” Death-defying tricks like the Drowning Escape and the Bullet Catch are most popular, because they are, as Cutter says, “cheap thrills, people hoping to see an accident.”
The magicians seek to increase the apparent thrill and reduce the risk of accident. Or so it seems. As they seek out more elaborate and astounding illusions, the magicians also begin to imagine intersections between science and art, performance and truth. “The secret,” instructs Alfred, “impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.” His very sweet wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall) wonders at his dedication, her measly paycheck supporting them as he ponders his future, increasingly removed from her and their young daughter Jess (Samantha Mahurin). Her first attempts to keep his attention are playful and telling: she asks him on different days to say he loves her, each time parsing his capacity. “Today you mean it,” she judges, though he doesn’t always. Sarah makes her tentative peace with his two selves: “I like being able to tell the difference,” she says, because when he does mean it, she can feel thrilled by the comparison to when he doesn’t.
Thus Sarah is seemingly relegated to the role of longsuffering helpmeet (and mother), her frustrations eventually visible in her drinking and occasional outburst. When at last she tells Alfred, “I know what you are,” the confrontation takes place as a scene partly overheard by Jess and her minder, who stand on the other side of a closed door. She may know, but it doesn’t matter. Alfred’s split self is turning toxic in front of her, even as it typifies the socio-industrial paradigm shift mapped out in The Prestige.
The split becomes even more pronounced when Alfred takes a lover, Robert’s former assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), whom Cutter describes as a pretty girl whose inexperience matters less than the fact that “she knows how to present herself,” that is, she provides an appropriate distraction on stage. She serves a similar function in the film, while also exposing the men’s relationship as a series of splits that are also connections.
She also mirrors Sarah, much as the men mirror one another. During a dinner Alfred arranges, seating his mistress opposite his wife, Olivia calls him “Freddy.” With this, the women share a moment. They both understand they’re competing, predictably, for affection, security, and commitment from their man. But they also know they cannot “win.”
The men, by contrast, continue to pursue victory, imagining that the costs won’t outweigh whatever pleasure they find in besting their opponent. The contest turns increasingly aggressive, with each increasingly isolated and spiteful. Robert’s efforts to reproduce Alfred’s signature trick — The Transported Man — take him to Colorado Springs, where an inventor named Tesla (David Bowie) is conducting experiments involving wild displays of electrical charges and a faithful assistant (Andy Serkis, sans digital body-mapping), all locked up inside a spooky lab in the mountains that evokes Victor Frankenstein’s.
The fact that Tesla also runs into trouble with a couple of shady types referred to as “Edison’s men” raises the specter of commercial competition, yet another layer in the film’s study of illusion and replication. The magicians chase after control of their illusions, performances that fool audiences who want to be fooled. They believe that their competition depends on knowing each other’s secrets, on not being fooled. But they are ever fooled, as each believes he is the more original prestidigitator. Ironically, this makes them, as Olivia observes angrily, “perfect for each other.”