The Prestige

A Critical Reading of the film, The Prestige.

The Prestige is director Christopher Nolan’s fifth outing.[1] His other credits include Memento, Insomnia and Inception, a catalogue into which The Prestige fits nicely. While the location is different the main themes that characterise Nolan’s work make an expected return. His other films fall into two categories; the comic book world of Gotham City and modern day America. Yet while nineteenth century London may be a far cry from both of these, his dark, eerie, cinematic ambiance remains.

It’s likely that anyone watching The Prestige will have some prior knowledge of Nolan’s work and as such the kind of questions he asks through them. The central theme of perception is ever present in Nolan’s work (outside of the Kevlar clad caped crusader). In Memento Guy Pearce hunts a man that is both the supposed killer of his wife and the one who inflicted injuries on him so that he is unable to make new memories. The big question of the film is whether this man can trust the reality that he perceives? Can he trust the world that is being created in part by himself, through what he learns during his moments of lucidity and in part by those who would manipulate him for their own advantage?[2]

Insomnia too deals with lies and deceit used to create ‘new worlds’ as a city detective played by Pacino attempts to investigate a murder in a small Alaskan town where the sun never sets. The question being posed is who is manipulating whom? Can Pacino see the truth through his own web of lies and sleep deprivation?[3]

Nolan’s most recent film, Inception, is his most blatant attempt to address the questions of what is real, can we know, do we care? In it we delve into dreams within dreams within dreams and are left with the cliff hanger of whether or not the lead character, Di Caprio, has settled for a comforting dream over and above the real world.[4]

All of this evidences that Nolan is adept at creating worlds and environments which explore a recurring theme of perception. In The Prestige this perception is explored through deception and whether or not the real world can offer any real hope.

 

What’s the Story of The Prestige?

The Prestige is set in nineteenth century London. The story begins with three magicians’ assistants; Robert Angier (played by Hugh Jackman), his dear wife Julia McCullough (Piper Perabo) and their close friend Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). Angier and Borden’s friendly competition soon turns into a bitter and deadly rivalry as their friendship is torn apart by an accident during a show which leads to the death of McCullough. Angier holds Borden responsible for the tragic drowning of his beloved wife, laying the foundations of resentment, hunger for revenge and the fierce rivalry between Angier and Borden which provide a backdrop for the remainder of the film.

The men part company but both persevere in the magic industry. Each one’s progress is stunted by a series of sabotages of the other’s shows. Borden finally rises to stardom when he debuts his ‘Transported Man’ illusion. Angier is overcome by his jealousy and makes it his life’s work to not only out-do Borden’s success with a similar trick but to discover the secret of how his great enemy really performs it.

Events begin to spiral out of control when Angier enters the emerging world of science, the new magic, and acquires what he believes to be a teleportation devise from eminent inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). In actual fact the machine turns out to be a cloning device which Angier uses in his ‘New Transported Man’ trick. His deeply unsettled nature is evidenced by the extreme length he is willing to go to in order to make this trick work, killing himself each time a clone is made so that only one ‘Angier’ remains at a time.

Borden, fascinated at his nemesis’ spectacular trick, takes it upon himself to investigate the backstage goings on only to discover the drowning Angier. In an attempt to finally do the right thing Borden raises the alarm but is unable to save Angier and must watch as he slowly drowns in a copycat of McCullough’s death. Borden is eventually convicted of Angier’s murder and sentenced to hang.

As the film draws to a close we learn that Borden too has a secret which rivals Angier’s disturbing dedication to the deception. Borden is in fact two people, identical twins, who have for the duration of the film been living as one person while the other has remained disguised as Borden’s engineer. While one Borden has been hanged, the other survives to seek the final retribution of the movie. Borden confronts Angier in a gloomy abandoned theatre, surrounded by the watery graves of Angier clones, shooting and killing the man he had supposedly drowned.

The film ends with the question ringing in the audience’s ears, “Was it worth it? Was the deception worth the terrible price that so many had to pay?”

Additionally the film also has a number of sub-plots which in some way reinforce or mimic the main narrative. There is the feud between Tesla and Edison which rumbles in the background mirroring the rivalry, obsession and treachery of Borden and Angier. There is also the love and loss that both men experience throughout the film, sharing a mistress and each losing a wife.

 

What sort of World does The Prestige take place in?

The World of the Prestige is dark and vintage. Everything about the film gives the impression of being authentically nineteenth century; set, costume, lighting, sound track and so on. In contrast to the ‘feel’ of the picture’s aesthetics, the expected traditional ‘period acting’ is notable by its absence. Rather the characters behave as if they aren’t in the nineteenth century at all. The language and mannerisms aren’t that of clichéd Victorian English but instead are more akin to the modern day. This makes the audience feel more at home in the world that Nolan has created because there is significantly less distance for them to travel in order to relate to the film. The viewer can connect more easily with the characters because they aren’t simply wooden interpretations which we’ve come to associate with the 1800’s. They are real people, real characters you might meet in your everyday life, just with odd clothes and less technology. This ‘realism’ in the face of a tremendous time gap is increased by the inclusion of a few real life characters. Tesla and Edison are mentioned numerous times, the rivalry between whom is well documented in the history books.

Scenes inside are usually dimly lit whilst outside the weather is always overcast, often misty. The lighting helps provide a constant sense of suspense, mimicking the fact that we never quite see the whole picture. This disorientating nature of the lighting is intensified by the fact that the film doesn’t have a traditional good guy/bad guy structure. While the imaginative worlds of Hollywood often have a comfortable, formulaic light versus dark, black and white rendering of the characters, Nolan has decided that things need to be a little greyer, as if seeing through an opaque mirror, providing the audience with the opportunity to decide for themselves, even to deceive themselves. If you speak to different people and you’ll get a different answer, both as right as the other, but both as wrong at the same time. This greyness permeates the entire world too, not just the two lead characters.

It’s also a world where there’s a real magic, the new magic of science. Tesla’s machine is able to do something that over a century later, in the real world, is still the stuff of science fiction. So while the world is ‘real’ there is still a necessary suspension of reality.

Ultimately The Prestige is a world in which deception is king. It opens with an explanation of a magic trick which has as its very purpose to entertain through deception. It centres around two magicians who by trade are out to deceive their audience at any cost. We have Angier and all his self-deceptions; that his hatred of Borden is justified, that he is the magician worthy of most recognition and that the ultimate in life is to be on stage receiving the adulation.  We have Borden’s life finally revealed as a grand deception and homage to the deception of the ‘old’ Chinese magician in the film’s opening. We have the deception of the two diaries of Borden and Angier, both fakes written in order to deceive the other. The deception which is weaved within the story is mirrored in the chronology (or lack of it) of the story telling.[5] Opening as it does half way through with the black cats and top hats of Tesla’s laboratory before swiftly moving to ‘the end’ where Cutter (Cain) is explaining the 3 acts of magic to Borden’s daughter, intermingled with the wrongful trail of Borden and the story being told through the ‘reading’ of the diaries.

 

What’s ‘Good’ about the World?

An important question to ask of any successful piece of art is, “What’s good and true about this world?” In other words what Gospel fragments can be found that form the basis of appeal to an ordinary public?  Well, The Prestige explores the biblical truth that man would rather be deceived than to face the real world. Chapter 1 of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans sums this up the best when it says, “For although they knew God…they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” In a passage which introduces mankind’s most fundamental problem Paul describes us as people who are intentionally deceived, that although knowing the truth we would prefer to believe and live out a lie. The Prestige exemplifies it with the layers upon layers of deception we find.

More than this The Prestige masterfully reveals the hopelessness of these deceptions. Just as Romans points us to the destruction of deceivers, the wrath of God being revealed against them, so The Prestige draws almost every deception to a saddening and painful end. Over and over again the deception that promises so much, which was so sought after by the character at such a high cost, deliverers so little.

One of the movie’s deceptions illustrates this well. Early on in their relationship Sarah comments on the inconsistency in the sincerity with which Borden claims to love her. Some days she claims he means it, others days that he’s more in love with magic than with her. The deception is her willingness to settle for a life of ‘every other day’ as if it were enough to satisfy her. “When you don’t mean it, it makes the days you do mean it even better.”

But how does it end, does the deception live up to the promise? Soon before she commits suicide she tells Borden almost the exact opposite, “The days you do mean it make the days you don’t even harder.” The deception has been revealed for what it truly is and the result is a tortured soul whose only escape is to hang herself.

Deceptions are what we use to satisfy the cravings of our soul. For Sarah it was her craving to be loved, for Borden it was his craving to be remembered, for Angier it was his craving for revenge. In Romans our craving is to have a god we can control. Deception (and self-deception at that) is the human condition.

 

What’s twisted about the World?

While the film lays this base truth about humanity painfully bare it offers nothing in the way of an alternative. Indeed the films silence in this arena is a clue to its most twisted, idolatrous aspect.

Yes we are deceivers and yes our deceptions usually end badly, but what else is there? In the world Nolan has created there is nothing else but despair. The characters and the viewers are left to choose between two extremes. Either place your hope in the deception or have no hope at all. There is no middle ground, there is no real hope.

The best option according to the film then is to continue in the deception as long as you can, because a life of ‘no hope’ doesn’t bear thinking about. Cutter’s voiceover reminds us at the start and closing of the film, “You want to be fooled.” That is, it’s simply better for you at the end of the day to be blissfully unaware. Ignorance is the answer.

Again this is seen in the sub-plot of Sarah’s undoing. For so much of the film her hope is in the deception, the distorted reality. Yet when she comes face to face with the hopelessness of the world she’s created around herself all her hope is gone. Those are the two extremes on offer. We either hope in a world we create or we give up completely. What else are we to conclude than that the best way to ‘get’ from life is to create the best deception we can, whatever the cost.

This is ultimately the outlook of the two main characters who in their final encounter compare and consider their relative ‘sacrifices,’ each concluding that their own sacrifices qualify them to be satisfied with the worlds they have created for themselves despite the terrible costs.

Many will take away from the film a sense of empowerment, a licence to create their own worlds with their own moralities. In The Prestige each character is their own ultimate source of authority. The Prestige says you can be in the driving seat; just make sure no one tries to fight you for it! Justice? Revenge? Good and Bad? All are things you can decide on at the expense of others and reality, what’s important is that you create a hope in something.

 

What does the Gospel have to say to Angier, Borden and Christopher Nolan?

What then can the Gospel have to say to any of the characters, to any of the writers and producers or to any of the 2.5 million people who own it on DVD?[6]

Firstly, it calls our bluff that we can have anything like control over the world we live in. Are our deceptions anything more than lies? Of course not. Are we free to create them, to be our own judges and standardizers of morality? Not a chance. God alone is judge and will judge (Psalm 75). While so much of the hurt in the film is a direct result of individuals deciding what is right and wrong and deciding on their own course of justice, the justice that the Gospel offers will satisfy. The Gospel teaches us that our own ways lead to ruin, but God’s ways, the ways offered in love, lead to prosperity (Psalm 1).

Secondly the Gospel addresses The Prestige’s apparent lack of hope. As we saw earlier the Bible does say that a judgement will come to those who have deceived themselves and others regarding God (Romans 2) but the story doesn’t end there. Out of our deception God brings hope in the face of Christ, someone who can offer hope no matter how great our deceptions. If unrighteousness is all that’s on offer through deception how glorious a truth is it that righteousness is on offer through faith in Jesus!

Consider Sarah’s story again. Having had her deception shattered was she really left without hope? Indeed she had no hope in that relationship anymore, but she was using it to satisfy her craving to be loved. The Gospel declares that she was loved immeasurably more than she could have created in any deception. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

What about Borden’s craving to be remembered? The Gospel declares that the only place we need to be remembered is in the Lamb’s book of life, if we are ‘remembered’ by Jesus on the day of judgement we will be welcomed as ‘good and faithful servants.’

What about Angier’s craving for justice? The Gospel declares that vengeance belongs to God and that he will judge correctly (Hebrews 10:30).

The Gospel declares we are not better off believing the lie. Any craving we seek to satisfy through deception is better met in the Gospel. We are best off when we understand the whole truth, that God is just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).

Angier, Borden, Sarah and Nolan; they all need the Gospel to fill whatever shape hole they have. The Gospel provides the ultimate hope to those who have been let down by their own deceptions. Without it we can only choose between continuing in the deception or giving up. The Gospel gives the third way, the way that leads to true satisfaction.


[1]A full list of Nolan’s credits, directorial or otherwise, can be found via IMDB, “Christopher Nolan,” n.p. [cited 1/11/2010]. Online: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0634240/.

[2]A fuller synopsis of Memento can be found at IMDB, “Memento Synopsis,” n.p. [cited 1/11/2010]. Online: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0209144/synopsis accessed 28/10/2010.

[3]A fuller synopsis of Insomnia can be found at IMDB, “Insomnia Synopsis,” n.p. [cited 1/11/2010]. Online: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0278504/synopsis.

[4]A fuller synopsis of Inception can be found at IMDB, “Inception Synopsis,” n.p. [cited 1/11/2010]. Online: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1375666/synopsis.

[5]This disjointed storytelling is another hallmark of Nolan’s non-Batman films.

[6]Figure represents DVD sales in the US obtained The Numbers, “The Prestige Sales Figures,” n.p. [cited 1/11/2010]. Online: http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2006/PRSTG-DVD.php.


Bibliography

IMDB. “Christopher Nolan.” No pages. Cited 1/11/2010. Online: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0634240/.

———. “Inception Synopsis.” No pages. Cited 1/11/2010. Online: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1375666/synopsis.

———. “Insomnia Synopsis.” No pages. Cited 1/11/2010. Online: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0278504/synopsis.

———. “Memento Synopsis.” No pages. Cited 1/11/2010. Online: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0209144/synopsis accessed 28/10/2010.

The Numbers. “The Prestige Sales Figures.” No pages. Cited 1/11/2010. Online:
http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2006/PRSTG-DVD.php.

 

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  1. The Prestige « saintbeagle - 05/11/2010

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