PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

The Prestige (2006)

This trick -- The Transported Man -- is at the center of the film's thematic concerns with replication, movement, and deception.


The Prestige

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis, Piper Perabo, David Bowie
Distributor: Buena Vista
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-10-20 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"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."

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.