The Prestige


It’s becoming apparent that movies come in pairs these days. Two movies about bugs who talk, two movies about highlanders, two movies with volcanos, two movies with asteroids, two movies about Alexander,1 two movies about Truman Capote. This year, we have the choice of two movies about turn-of-the-century magicians.2 These genres are getting surprisingly specific.

The Prestige, as dear old Michael Caine explains to us early in the picture, is the final act of a magic trick — the impressive bit. The Prestige is impressive too, but not in the same way a magic trick is. Many tricks, including quite a few of the ones portrayed in this movie, rely in part on suspense; on the audience being terrified for the safety of an innocent, be it a cute little birdie or an even cuter Scarlett Johansson. By contrast, after half an hour with the feuding characters of The Prestige, you most probably won’t particularly care for the well-being of any of them.

But YM, as they say on the interweb, MV. Some people say they can’t watch a film without a sympathetic character; others focus on plot. If you need to be able to align yourself with the protagonist of a film, you may have trouble. The Prestige is a film about bitterness, jealousy, hatred, success, and obsession. You won’t come bouncing out of the cinema. There’s perhaps a similar tone to Christopher Nolan’s earlier work, Memento — but these characters do horrible things without needing to be tricked into them.3

The story, then. Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier is a consummate showman, expert at wooing and manipulating a crowd, but maybe less good at the finer points of magic, and less concerned with originality and vision. Christian Bale’s Alfred Borden is almost his perfect inverse; dedicated to doing something original and wonderful, but not as good at making the audience appreciate it. This probably doesn’t sound enough for a good feud, and it isn’t — it takes a bit of tragedy to start them rolling. But once they do, their differences in character are more than enough to keep the fires burning.

On the other hand, the girls — Miss Johansson, Rebecca Hall and Piper Perabo — don’t have anything particularly interesting to do aside from being generally tragic, which is a shame, but I suppose it is true to the spirit of stage magic.4

The Prestige is a clever film, as you’d expect from Nolan.5 The screenplay is based on an equally well-plotted book, and doesn’t screw anything up.6 Some of the twists in the tale are a little over-signposted, but this is made up for by the sheer volume of them. The film isn’t just clever, it’s choc-full of story — and story which hangs together, at that — which is pretty special in this day and age.

There’s a lot to like about this film; there’s a cute splash of science fiction, a lot of romance, impressive tricks, flashbacks, and at one point, David Bowie and Gollum turn up. You might find the whole production leaves you cold, but if you can get past that, you might find an awesome, twisted little film exploring just how far people are willing to go for an obsession.

  1. Well, not quite. One was probably enough anyway, Baz.
  2. The Illusionist, starring Ed Norton, isn’t quite out yet here. But by the law of pairs, it fast approaches.
  3. I think a novel has an easier time of forcing you to identify with unpleasant characters. Books get to play with ideas of subjectivity quite easily; the viewer of a film feels eminently qualified to judge any and all characters, because they saw what happened.
  4. In fact, there’s a “hell hath no fury” moment at one point, which I’m starting to develop a bit of an allergy to.
  5. That “microwave” stuff in Batman Begins notwithstanding.
  6. Well, I didn’t feel like it did. A quick look on Wikipedia reveals quite a few plot differences, in fact.
No one cares about the man in the box, the man who disappears. — Robert Angier

3 Responses to “The Prestige”

  1. You only listed half dozen pairs of similar movies. There’s so many more.

    I found the film, which started out intriguing, was in the end off-putting due to the lengths the characters went to for their craft. After the constant bitterness and acrimony in the film, I found myself feeling bitter and stressed when leaving the cinema. After a tense movie I like a happy ending of some sort to relieve the tension. While Children of Men did not happily resolve for everyone, it was at least ambiguous enough to be interpreted as a happy ending. It also had humorous moments during the film to break up the tension.

    Another thing Children of Men had that this film lacked was good and evil characters. When everyone is crazy, there’s no one to root for. I like someone to be slightly less evil than the rest. The only one I did like in the end was Tesla.


    I think it was the mutilation of the second twins fingers that did that I disliked the most. I wouldn’t do it for my brother, even if we did look alike. It was mentioned that living a lie helped pull off a magic trick, but it still seemed bizarre that Borden and his twin would act as one person for their entire life (including finger chopping) for the benefit of one trick.

    Angier was more believeable, because he started normal and slowly went crazy. By the time he was drowning clones and framing people for murder, I’d seen over the course of the movie exactly how committed he was to his cause so had time to distance myself from him but could still empathise with him a bit.

  2. I will have to follow with more SPOILERS!



    I like the more cautious Borden twin. I can only assume he was the one that didn’t tie the dodgy knot but went to the funeral out of guilt. And that he was the one that counselled not to go backstage at the final show. And the one that got his daughter back at the end. So you see, happy ending. Of sorts.

    Borden from the start of the film is smug in the knowledge that he has an awesome trick up his sleeve, and is very respectful of the man who’s been pretending to hobble his whole professional life in order to carry the fishbowl. He’s way more focussed on the tricks than Jackman’s character, and both of them would agree that they’d have to mirror injuries or abort their whole plan. And if you’ve put that much work into it…

    And it is a pretty awesome trick, as is made clear in the film. Everyone loves it. From an obsessive magician’s point of view it’s probably worthwhile.

    The girls were nice. Michael Caine was nice. The daughter was nice.

  3. Not all of the pairs listed on wikipedia can be easily summarised in one or two words. Also, I didn’t want to go on for the whole review. Should’ve mentioned Sky High and Zoom though.