Fans of Christian Bale should pay closer attention to “The Prestige,” as it offers a window into his process as an actor more than any other role he’s taken. Bale has played an astonishing lot of versatile characters in many great films and demonstrated, time and time again, his utter dedication to his craft. Both chameleon-like and clever enough to find ways both psychological and physical to get under the skin of his characters, Bale is one of the best at what he does, a true sleight of hand artist. It’s appropriate, then, that he would take on the role of magician Alfred Borden.
The key to the film and Bale’s character, a stage magician, is a brilliant scene early on, where Borden tells his wife a precious secret. After much goading, Borden reveals to Sarah (played by the always wonderful Rebecca Hall) how his “bullet catch” illusion works. She fires a gun at him, he appears to catch the bullet and he then tells her the very simple way the trick works. Sarah notes with bemusement that, once you know how the trick is done, it’s not that impressive. Watch Bale’s face closely: Borden is crushed and quickly informs her how dangerous the trick can be if performed improperly. He immediately regains Sarah’s interest and, in essence, wins back his audience. For Borden, entertaining is a never-ending practice, an itch he’s forever scratching.
“The Prestige” portrays the decades-spanning relationship between Bale’s Borden and Hugh Jackman’s Robert Angier, two fellow magicians whose friendship takes a tragic turn. While both are trained by John Cutter, a master sleight of hand artist (Michael Caine), they grow apart, develop separate acts and, while growing in their knowledge of the art of deception, they attempt to sabotage one another.
The screenplay, based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Christopher Priest, was co-written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. It’s hard to miss the film’s allegory for the creative process, as protecting one’s secrets and the lengths to which someone would go to being the most advanced at their profession, marks the difference between a master or mere apprentice. The mental and physical duel between Angier and Borden is a study of obsession and how dedication to a lifetime of excellence in the arts can take a toll on those in the spotlight. As a film about magicians, its more on the struggle to manifest new ideas than the enjoyment of watching a rabbit come out of a hat. The film probably has as much to say about Nolan, Bale and Jackman as it does their onscreen counterparts, Cutter, Borden and Angier.
Like Bale, Jackman is excellent in what is also one of his best acting turns to date. Not everyone can hold the screen with Bale but Jackman matches his intensity and commitment to playing such a tortured and not entirely sympathetic role. As the story progresses and Angier and Borden become so obsessed with destroying the legacy of one another and creating career milestones of their own, the two leads never back down from making their character both driven and loathsome.
Scarlett Johansson’s role is mostly window dressing, which is actually appropriate, since she’s playing a magician’s assistant. Far better is Caine, always Nolan’s secret weapon, a delightful Piper Perabo as an ill-fated assistant and Andy Serkis, making a strong impression in a supporting turn. Casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla may be Nolan’s most magnificent casting choice, as Bowie’s interpretation of the role is both smart (it’s among his most hypnotic, eerie film performances) and layered (Bowie’s own aura of mystery and mystique funnels its way into his characterization of an enigmatic creator).
While “The Prestige” opened to glowing reviews and strong box office, it was not a huge success. Considering the talent involved, many expected the film to become a blockbuster and it never did. Some believed competition from the artier, far more subtle “The Illusionist” was an issue but the real reason lies within the film itself. Nolan’s film is especially mean and cold, containing a heart as black as his “The Dark Knight.” This is a film of two illusionists whose lifelong game of one-upmanship causes them to become self destructive and increasingly cruel. While always fascinating, it’s not fun to watch Borden and Angier doom themselves through their efforts to destroy one another.
My wife and I have stayed at the Cliff House in Manitou Springs, the same location where Angier stays while pursuing Tesla in Colorado Springs. While the movie wasn’t filmed in Colorado, Nolan’s production designers created an uncanny facsimile of how the town appeared in the late 19th century. The hotel used to have a plaque in their lobby, stating their connection to “The Prestige” and how the screenplay and filmmakers carefully recreated a facade of The Cliff House from hundreds of years ago. Over the years, I noticed that the hotel took the plaque down but they should reconsider putting it back up. “The Prestige” has developed a deserved cult following and is recognized as one of Nolan’s finest achievements. Whether it’s the bullet catch or reproducing an old hotel in Colorado, the film offers a powerful depiction on the ultimate cost of a life spent manifesting illusions. The movie asks, if everything real about you is a “trick,” then where does showmanship end and reality begin?