(SPOILERS) If you hadn’t heard, The Prestige’s ending is divisive. The very fact of this is something I find, frankly, bizarre. The idea that it’s somehow perceived as a cheat or cop out. The ending as it unfolds is everything to the movie. It’s intrinsic to it and makes explicit its thematic content in a powerful and resonant way. Without it, the film becomes an above-par Now You See Me (one with tricks that actually have some degree of coherence and less CGI). With it, it amounts to a classic.
Whose fault is it when a movie (or any piece of art) fails to meet one’s formal expectations? Is it one’s expectations that are to blame, or the movie, for a seeming inability to comply with the rules governing its genre/narrative/construction? Roger Ebert considered it the latter, and Terry Gilliam was another notable decrying Nolan’s final reveal. Ebert expressed the view “What you will learn in the movie is, I believe, a disappointment -- nothing but a trick about a trick”. Its sin, in their eyes, is to resolve a movie about stage magic with the conceit of real magic. Science-fiction science, more accurately, but within the context of The Prestige, real magic = science-fiction science (assuming cloning of this order – and teleportation, come to that – are beyond our current ken).
Ebert was keen to stress the conflict this presented in terms of the bona fides of stage magicians of the period, and that Houdini “the great transitional figure between ‘magical’ acts and ingenious tricks, was at pains to explain that everything he did was a trick; he offered rewards, never collected, for any ‘supernatural’ act he could not explain”. The Prestige’s solution is, then, a betrayal for those dedicated to the genuine artistry and craft of stage magic, perhaps even more so than the daft nonsense of the Now You See Mes’ CGI gimmickry.
It may be a sliver of a qualification for such conceptual purists, but Nolan’s movie – and Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel, on which it is based – isn’t testifying to bona-fide magic, only that, as science fiction is oft prone to, that which appears to be magic is simply phenomena mainstream science has yet to grasp. Which is to say that all is essentially explicable in terms of cause and effect. But by running the Tesla mythos, Nolan is veering much too near the line distinguishing acceptable MSM science from occult science, in which many and varied unofficial theories, pooh-poohed, disavowed or even maliciously denounced – for not fitting the accepted paradigm – are allowed to live grand and unrestrained existences.
“What you’re about to witness is not magic. It’s purely science” announces the Great Danton (Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier) on introducing The New Transported Man. Which may be true contextually, but they’re interchangeable in terms of function here, for both convey an overwhelming sense of the uncanny. And isn’t there something further to this? That science is itself magic, in the same way it becomes a religion; science requires only a captive audience suspending their disbelief for all manner of nonsensical ideas and proposals to be given credence, swallowed hook, line and sinker, and so approved to persist (the promotion of allopathic medicine, for starters).
It’s this, the distinction between appearances and reality, between illusion and delusion, perception and deception, that is at the heart of Nolan’s oeuvre and writ large in The Prestige. Can it be a coincidence that Nolan is next making a movie about Oppenheimer, utilising the smoke and mirrors of Tinseltown to underpin the official narrative of the nuke story and threat. Does Nolan believe the legend, as one who clearly understands intricately the manipulation in embedding one as fact? Perhaps so, perhaps he’s a willing pawn – perhaps he believes in the mission, even – and perhaps he concurs with Tesla when the latter attests “Society tolerates only one change at a time”. But society is a very loose word there, since it is actually those who hold the reins who decide.
At one point, Ackerman (Edward Hibbert) comments “Pardon me. It’s very rare to see real magic. It’s many years since I’ve seen…” as if he too has witnessed genuinely inexplicable wonders. Of the sort even Houdini could not expose as lies. In a sense, The Prestige does cheat, because Angier cheats. What he comes up with isn’t a trick, but it’s every bit as much a piece of stage craft, of manipulation and illusion. As such, while The Prestige is commonly cited as being all about obsession – the obsession of Angier and Alfred (Christian Bale) in outwitting each other, out maiming, out-abusing and out-sabotaging each other; Tesla even cites their danger “… I followed them too long. I’m their slave… and one day they’ll choose to destroy me” – this isn’t the key thematic underpinning of the Nolanverse.
Angier and Alfred have in common the goal of deceiving the public about the nature of reality. As such, they could be construed as stand-ins for the Elite. They even have nominal, Hegelian differences (Angier is all privilege and pomp, Alfred all working-class, unfinessed rough-and-tumble spikiness) that ultimately work to further their cause. The same cause. Alfred knows well what’s required of the art, whereas Angier is initially squeamish (“I don’t want to kill a dove”). The mantra of the cause is: “You’ve got to get your hands dirty”.
For this, Alfred is willing to lead an entire life as a lie, to deceive those closest (Rebecca Hall’s Sarah) in consort with his twin brother Fallon; the latter, it seems, truly loves Sarah, yet clearly insufficiently to be honest with her, or keep his brother from sharing her. There is a single-minded psychopathy – killing Julia (Piper Perabo) ought to have called him to account, but instead he excuses himself with an “I don’t know” on the basis, presumably, that his brother does (know) – to this we see more explicitly in the lengths to which Angier is eventually willing to go. The art of the magician here is the art of the freemason, the twin is MKUltra’s mirror phase and concomitant mind control (and what is magic if not mind control?)
When Angier tells Fallon he fails to get it (perhaps because he carries within him the weakness of true feeling), there is again a deception inherent in this “truth”: “You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth. The world is simple. It’s miserable. It’s solid, it’s solid all the way through”. This truth is the truth the audience has been fed, the truth of the materialist, of the modern age, and it’s this that the audience, chained by it, seeks to escape, even if just in the theatre. Angier is an architect of lies about the nature of reality. He suggests incredible scientific advances are simple trickery, just as the extent of Tesla’s wizardry is buried by an elite whose interests it fails to serve (at least, on a broader, socially-inclusive level). Tesla becomes a crackpot, an eccentric whose reach extended his grasp.
Cutter: Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.
And we, the audience, nod along, because as Cutter (Michael Caine) outlines, this is part of the intent: “You want to be fooled”. Evidently, any suggestion of underlying moral perspective, if we’re to take a reading of the Elite duping the masses, would be ludicrous, but the picture ultimately settles on Angier as the more culpable party. Perhaps because he travels further in his avowed quest and so commits greater crimes (sending a man to the gallows, sacrificing his soul – literally, every night, if we’re to countenance his duplicates having such a thing).
Morally, Alfred is undoubtedly in the wrong too, however. As noted, it’s his indecency that foments the power struggle between the two men. He’s positioned as the protagonist in some respects, the mysterious protagonist (there’s no concealment in our understanding of Angier until he introduces his new act), and Fallon being reunited with his daughter represents the classic conclusion of order restored. Even though, in some respects, Fallon – who has the effrontery to point the finger at Angier: “You did terrible things” – deserves more approbation than his doppelganger. It is he, after all, who fails to live by his deepest feelings.
There may be a performative failing here, admittedly, in that Jackman is an essentially likeable actor, so casting him as someone turning sour lends that character significant leeway. Bale, contrastingly, is hard to warm to, and this means the contrasting personalities between brothers is less obvious. One might charitably argue Bale was purposefully underplaying this, but we have a strong sense of Alfred, whereas Fallon just tends to smile a shade more.
Cutter – as Caine invariably is in Nolan’s pictures – is cast as the movie’s moral backbone. Again, however, this is in strictly relative terms. Cutter isn’t really a moral man either (he’s the one who preaches about Angier getting his hands dirty). But in terms of the plot, he serves that function, siding first with Angier following Julia’s death, and then with Fallon when he realises Angier’s ruse. Cutter also tells you at the start just how it is – that Alfred must have a double – so the only reveal is to Jackman, or you the viewer, if you believe Jackman; the “science” side is obviously beyond Cutter, and as such, he’s really more akin to Gilliam or Ebert. Clones in tanks are quite beyond the rightful bounds of the picture. “The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything” is even used in quotes by reviews expressing discontent with the resolution,
Time Out’s Ben Walters complained The Prestige broke two cardinal rules of the magic trick: “It tells you how it’s all done and takes so long about it that you’ve got time to work it out for yourself”. He suggested the movie suffered from a structural Catch-22 of the magic trick vs the thriller. Uncertainty vs disclosure. While I agree Nolan allows one to deduce its deception, I would argue that, by the time we reach the official reveal, the picture is no longer simply operating on those two plotting levels, and is rather addressing something more potent. This might be Nolan’s most emotionally engaged movie, even though it remains so very controlled, and as noted, requires one of its leads to be in a position of withholding for most of the running time. Where the picture stumbles in that regard is not with the enormously affecting Hall, but the entirely indifferent Scarlett Johansson, who is somehow supposed to lure both Angier and Alfred (the latter professing he loves her) yet serves as a cypher at best.
In the novel, Tesla’s machine transports consciousness into a physical duplicate (so there’s less overt callous intent involved), leaving behind “near-lifeless shells”. These are “the prestiges”, rather than exact copies of Angiers Nolan conceives. The adaptation also removes a spiritualism subplot (in which the Julia character is injured due to Alfred’s act) and the significant modern-day framing devise; the core conceit, though, the one Ebert objected to, is very much there.
Priest considered Nolan’s film very good (an “extraordinary and brilliant script”), and it’s easy to affirm his admiration. The Prestige one of the increasingly rare occasions when Nolan’s hardware – that solid-all-the-way-through world – is not taking pre-eminence. It thus has much more in common with his first two films. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is outstanding, and some sequences – the whole Tesla passage, buoyed by a perfectly cast David Bowie, with its sea of top hats and a duplicated cat – are absolutely spellbinding. There’s a huge amount of editing graft here, but it’s of the intellectual puzzle kind rather than diving into spatial geometry, which means all the elements are working in the director’s favour.
Sam Mendes had originally been angling to make the picture, but Priest picked Nolan on the basis of Following. A commendable choice, as Mendes makes at-best empty movies rattling around an awards locus. There are flaws here. Johansson. The plot convenience of finding a drunk actor who resembles Angier just enough that Jackman can play him (the actual act of the Transported Man using twins was quite common it seems, but happening upon a double in London precisely when you need him is a bigger stretch). They’re minor in context of the whole, though.
A couple of side observations. Had Nolan seen The Talons of Weng-Chiang? The early scene with Chung Lin Soo (Chao Li Chi) made me wonder. Some prominently placed number 23s here too (230 Adya Close; cell 23-D). The Prestige is also a movie more beloved by audiences than critics, for what such barometers are worth, ranking as the fourth most popular Nolan film on IMDB at 47 (there are seven in the Top 200 by my count). Obviously, Nolan has his dyed-in-the-wool devotees, but the regard for this one is a pleasant surprise. The Prestige fully deserves it. There’s no faking a movie of this quality.