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The Prestige is a 2006 mystery thriller film directed by Christopher Nolan, with a screenplay adapted from Christopher Priest's 1995 World Fantasy Award-winning novel of the same name. The story follows Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, rival stage magicians in Londonmarker at the beginning of the 20th century. Obsessed with creating the best stage illusion, they engage in competitive one-upmanship with tragic results.

The film features Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier, Christian Bale as Alfred Borden, and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. It also stars Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Piper Perabo, Andy Serkis, and Rebecca Hall. The film reunites Nolan with actors Bale and Caine from Batman Begins, and returning cinematographer Wally Pfister, production designer Nathan Crowley, film score composer David Julyan, and editor Lee Smith.

Priest's epistolary novel was adapted to the screen by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan Nolan, using Nolan's distinctive nonlinear narrative structure. Themes of duality, obsession, sacrifice, and secrecy pervade the conflict. The film was released on October 20, 2006, receiving good reviews and strong box office results, and obtained Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. Along with The Illusionist and Scoop, The Prestige was one of three films in 2006 to explore the world of stage magicians.

Plot

Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are plants for Milton the Magician (Ricky Jay), with Cutter (Michael Caine) as his illusion engineer. Angier's wife, Julia (Piper Perabo) drowns while performing a predicament escape from a Chinese water torture cell, and Angier suspects that Borden bound her wrists with a new knot that he had suggested to Cutter before—one harder for her to undo than his customary one. At the funeral, Borden enrages Angier by saying he does not know which knot he tied.

The two men begin separate careers as magicians; Borden becomes "The Professor" and hires an engineer named Fallon, while Angier performs as "The Great Danton" with Cutter and Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) as his assistants. During a parlor magic job, Borden meets Sarah (Rebecca Hall); they marry and have a daughter, Jess. Sarah feels uneasy about Borden and his apparent fickleness; she claims to know when he loves her and when he does not. During Borden's performance of the bullet catch, a disguised Angier again demands to know which knot Borden used. Borden and Fallon quickly realize Angier is going to shoot at Borden with a loaded gun. At the last second, Fallon intervenes, and the bullet severs two of Borden's fingers instead of killing him. A disguised Borden later sabotages Angier's performance of the vanishing bird cage illusion, damaging Angier's reputation.

Borden soon astonishes crowds with "The Transported Man", in which he bounces a ball across the stage before stepping through a door and instantly reappearing from a second door on the opposite side of the stage to catch the ball. The new illusion amazes Angier and Olivia. Obsessed with beating Borden, Angier hires a double and steals Borden's trick, with a slight variation, as "The New Transported Man". The double enjoys the applause while Angier can only listen from below stage. Unhappy at missing the applause and obsessed with figuring out Borden's version of the teleportation illusion, Angier sends Olivia to steal Borden's secrets. Although Olivia provides Angier with Borden's enciphered diary, she falls in love with Borden and double-crosses Angier, allowing Borden to sabotage Angier's act, permanently crippling Angier's left leg by removing a crash mat. In return, Angier and Cutter capture Fallon and bury him alive inside a coffin, revealing his location to Borden in exchange for the key to Borden's illusion. Before rushing to dig out Fallon while he still has air, Borden gives Angier one word, "TESLA", and suggests that it is not merely the key to the transposition cipher of Borden's notebook (which Olivia had brought to Angier) but also the key to the illusion.

Angier travels to Colorado Springsmarker to meet Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and learn the secret of Borden's illusion. Tesla constructs a teleportation machine that resembles a Magnifying Transmitter, but the device initially fails to work. Angier learns from Borden's notebook that he has been sent on a wild goose chase. Feeling he has been cheated, he returns to Tesla's lab, but discovers that the machine creates and teleports a duplicate of any item placed in it. Tesla's rivalry with Thomas Edison forces Tesla to leave Colorado Springs soon after that, but he leaves Angier an improved version of the machine. In a letter, however, he warns Angier to destroy it.

Borden's relationship with Olivia takes its toll on Sarah, driving her to drink. Borden's apparent erratic behavior and Sarah's suspicion of an extramarital relationship between Borden and Olivia leads Sarah to hang herself. Angier returns to London to produce a final set of 100 performances of his new act, "The Real Transported Man". He insists that Cutter remain front stage for these shows and that only blind stagehands help backstage. In the new illusion, Angier disappears under huge arcs of electricity and instantaneously "teleports" 50 yards from the stage to the balcony. Borden is baffled but spots a trap door. After a show one night, Fallon follows Angier's stagehands. They move a large, concealed water tank across town to an abandoned building. Borden attends Angier's performance again. He slips backstage and discovers a locked water tank with a drowning Angier inside. Borden tries to save him, but Angier drowns. Cutter catches Borden, who is convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to hang. In prison, Borden reads Angier's diary from Colorado which addresses him directly with hopes he will rot in prison for his murder. Jess will become a ward of the state unless Borden gives up the secret of his illusion to a certain Lord Caldlow. He is forced to oblige, but refuses to reveal all unless he can see Jess before his execution. When Lord Caldlow visits with Jess, Borden realizes that he is Angier. Beaten, Borden gives him a note containing the secret of the original Transported Man trick, but Angier tears it up without reading it. Cutter also meets the lord and realizes he is Angier. Cutter then grasps the full grim cost of Angier's obsession when he sees he has adopted Jess. Cutter is furious that he was the one who indirectly framed Borden, who is subsequently hanged.

Cutter accompanies Angier to the abandoned building where the water tanks are stored, and helps him store the teleportation machine. Cutter leaves in disgust, silently acknowledging the arrival of Borden, who shoots Angier. Borden reveals that he and "Fallon" were identical twins who lived as a single individual, alternating lives as needed: one twin loving Sarah and the other loving Olivia. For the original illusion, a twin acted as the double. They were so committed to the illusion that they amputated the other twin's fingers to match his brother's injury; they also suffered the loss of Sarah as a result of their dedication to the illusion. Similarly, flashbacks recount Angier's method: that each time he disappeared during his illusion, the machine would create a duplicate, with one Angier falling through a trap door into a locked tank and drowning, and another Angier teleporting to the balcony. Each tank stores a drowned duplicate of Angier for each time that he has performed the trick. Before leaving, Borden looks back at the aisles of tanks containing the dead duplicates and then leaves the dead Angier as a fire begins to consume the building. Borden reunites with Jess.

Cast and characters

Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier, an aristocratic magician with a talent for performance. After reading the script, Jackman expressed interest in playing the part of Robert Angier. Christopher Nolan discovered Jackman was interested in the script, and after meeting with him, saw that Jackman possessed the qualities of stage showmanship that Nolan was looking for in the role of Angier. Nolan explained that Angier had "a wonderful understanding of the interaction between a performer and a live audience", a quality he believed that Jackman had. Nolan said that "[Jackman] has the great depth as an actor that hasn't really been explored. People haven't had the chance to really see what he can do as an actor, and this is a character that would let him do that." Jackman based his portrayal of Angier on 1950s-era American magician Channing Pollock.

Christian Bale as Alfred Borden, a working-class magician with an understanding of magic. Christian Bale expressed interest in playing the part of Alfred Borden, and was cast after Jackman. Although Nolan had previously cast Bale as Batman in Batman Begins, he did not consider Bale for the part of Borden until Bale contacted him about the script. Nolan said that Bale was "exactly right" for the part of Borden, and that it was "unthinkable" for anyone else to play the part. Nolan described Bale as "terrific to work with", who "takes what he does very, very seriously". Nolan suggested that the actors should not read the book, but Bale ignored his advice.

Michael Caine as John Cutter, the stage engineer who works for Angier. Caine had previously collaborated with Nolan and Bale in Batman Begins, where he played Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family butler. Nolan said that even though it felt like the character of Cutter was written for Caine, it was not. Nolan noted that the character "was written before I'd ever met him". Caine describes Cutter as "a teacher, a father and a guide to Angier". Caine, in trying to create Cutter's nuanced portrait, altered his voice and posture. Nolan later said that "Michael Caine’s character really becomes something of the heart of the movie. He has a wonderful warmth and emotion to him that draws you into the story and allows you to have a point of view on these characters without judging them too harshly."

Rebecca Hall as Sarah Borden, Borden's wife. Hall had to relocate from North London to Los Angeles in order to shoot the film, though ironically, the film itself takes place in North London. Hall said that she "was starstruck just to be involved in [the film]".

Scarlett Johansson as Olivia Wenscombe, Angier's assistant and Borden's lover. Nolan said that he was "very keen" for Johansson to portray the role, and when he met with her to discuss it, "she just loved the character". Johansson praised Nolan's directing methods, saying that she "loved working with [him]"; he was "incredibly focused and driven and involved, and really involved in the performance in every aspect."

David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, the real life inventor who creates a device for Angier. For the role of Nikola Tesla, Nolan wanted someone who was not necessarily a film star, but was "extraordinarily charismatic". Nolan said that "David Bowie was really the only guy I had in mind to play Tesla because his function in the story is a small but very important role". Nolan contacted David Bowie, who initially turned down the part. As a lifelong fan of his music, Nolan flew out to New York to pitch the role to Bowie in person, telling him that nobody else could possibly play the part; Bowie accepted after a few minutes.

Piper Perabo as Julia McCullough, Angier's wife.

Andy Serkis as Mr. Alley, Tesla's assistant. Serkis said that he played his character with the belief that he was "once a corporation man who got excited by this maverick, Tesla, so jumped ship and went with the maverick". Serkis described his character as a "gatekeeper", a "conman", and "a mirror image of Michael Caine’s character". Serkis, a big fan of Bowie, said that he was enjoyable to work with, describing him as "very unassuming, very down to earth... very at ease with himself and funny."

Ricky Jay as "Milton the Magician", an older magician Borden and Angier work for at the beginning of the story. Jay and Michael Weber trained Jackman and Bale for their roles with brief instruction in various stage illusions. The magicians gave the actors limited information, allowing them to know enough to pull off a scene.

Production



Julian Jarrold's and Sam Mendes's producer approached Christopher Priest for an adaptation of his novel The Prestige. Priest was impressed with Nolan's films Following and Memento, and subsequently, producer Valerie Dean brought the book to Christopher Nolan's attention. In October 2000, Christopher Nolan traveled to the UK to publicize Memento, as Newmarket Films was having difficulty finding a U.S. distributor. While in Londonmarker, Christopher Nolan read Priest's book and shared the story with his brother while walking around in Highgatemarker (a location later featured in the scene where Angier ransoms Borden's ingénieur in Highgate Cemeterymarker). The development process for The Prestige began as a reversal of their earlier collaboration: Jonathan Nolan had pitched his initial story for Memento to his brother during a road trip.

Scarlett Johansson as a stage assistant
A year later, the option on the book became available and was purchased by Aaron Ryder of Newmarket Films. In late 2001, Christopher Nolan became busy with the post-production of Insomnia, and asked Jonathan Nolan to help work on the script. The writing process was a long collaboration between the Nolan brothers, occurring intermittently over a period of five years. In the script, the Nolans emphasized the magic of the story through the dramatic narrative, playing down the visual depiction of stage magic. The three-act screenplay was deliberately structured around the three elements of the film's illusion: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. "It took a long time to figure out how to achieve cinematic versions of the very literary devices that drive the intrigue of the story," Christopher Nolan told Variety. "The shifting points of view, the idea of journals within journals and stories within stories. Finding the cinematic equivalents of those literary devices was very complex." Although the film is thematically faithful to the novel, two major changes were made to the plot structure during the adaptation process: the novel's spiritualism subplot was removed, and the modern-day frame story was replaced with Borden's wait for the gallows. Priest approved of the adaptation, describing it as "an extraordinary and brilliant script, a fascinating adaptation of my novel".

Costume designer Joan Bergin chose attractive, modern Victorian fashions for Scarlett Johansson; Cinematographer Wally Pfister captured the mood with soft earth tones as white and black colors provided background contrasts, bringing actors' faces to the foreground.
In early 2003, Nolan planned to direct the film before the production of Batman Begins accelerated. Following the release of Batman Begins, Nolan started up the project again, negotiating with Bale and Jackman in October 2005. While the screenplay was still being written, production designer Nathan Crowley began the set design process in Nolan's garage, employing a "visual script" consisting of scale models, images, drawings, and notes. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan finished the final shooting draft on January 13, 2006, and began production three days later on January 16. Filming ended on April 9.

Crowley and his crew searched Los Angeles for almost seventy locations that would resemble fin de siècle London. Influenced by a "Victorian modernist aesthetic", Crowley chose four locations in the Broadway theater district in downtown Los Angelesmarker for the film's stage magic performances: the Los Angeles Theatremarker, the Palace Theatremarker, the Los Angeles Belasco, and the Tower Theatre. Crowley also turned a portion of the Universal back lot into Victorian London. Nolan built only one set for the film, an "under-the-stage section that houses the machinery that makes the larger illusions work," preferring to simply dress various Los Angeles locations and sound stages to stand in for Coloradomarker and Victorian England. In contrast to most period pieces, Nolan kept up the quick pace of production by shooting with handheld cameras, and refrained from using artificial lighting in some scenes, relying instead on natural light on location.

Editing, scoring and mixing finished on September 22, 2006. The song "Analyse" by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke is played over the credits.

Themes

The rivalry between Borden and Angier dominates the film. Obsession, secrecy, and sacrifice fuel the battle, as both magicians contribute their fair share to a deadly duel of one-upmanship, with disastrous results. Angier's obsession with beating Borden costs him Cutter's friendship, while Borden's obsession with maintaining the secrecy of his twin leads Sarah to question their relationship, eventually resulting in her suicide; in the end, Angier and Borden both lose Olivia's love because of their obsessions. Their struggle is also expressed through class warfare: Borden as The Professor, a working-class magician who gets his hands dirty, versus Angier as The Great Danton, a classy showman whose accent makes him appear American. Film critic Matt Brunson observes a complex theme of duality exemplified by Angier and Borden, noting that the film dispenses with simplistic notions of good versus evil characters.

David Bowie as Tesla
Angier's theft of Borden's teleportation illusion in the film echoes the many real-world examples of stolen tricks among magicians. Outside the film, similar rivalries include magicians John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Kellar's dispute over a levitation illusion. Gary Westfahl of Locus Online also notes a "new proclivity for mayhem" in the film over the novel, citing the murder/suicide disposition of Angier's duplicates and intensified violent acts of revenge and counter-revenge. This "relates to a more general alteration in the events and tone of the film" rather than significantly changing the underlying themes.

Nor is this cutthroat competition limited to prestidigitation: engineering "wizards" Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison engaged in a rivalry over electrical current, which appears in the film in parallel to Borden and Angier's competition for magical supremacy.

Den Shewman of Creative Screenwriting says the film asks how far one would go to devote oneself to an art. The character of Chung Ling Soo, according to Shewman, is a metaphor for this theme. Film critic Alex Manugian refers to this theme as the "meaning of commitment." For example, Soo's pretense of being slow and feeble misdirects his audience from noticing the physical strength required to perform the goldfish bowl trick, but the cost of maintaining this illusion is the sacrifice of individuality: Soo's true appearance and freedom to act naturally are consciously suppressed in his ceaseless dedication to the art of magic.

Nicolas Rapold of Film Comment addresses the points raised by Shewman and Manugian in terms of the film's "refracted take on Romanticism":

For Manugian the central theme is "obsession," but he also notes the supporting themes of the "nature of deceit" and "science as magic." Manugian criticizes the Nolans for trying to "ram too many themes into the story."

Music

"The problem with Julyan's score to The Prestige is that it starts with the pledge and never turns. It shows you something ordinary but the composer never makes it do anything remotely extraordinary. Within the context of the movie and like the character of Borden, it creates the illusion but lacks the flare and panache that makes a magic trick come to life. And for a movie calling itself The Prestige, that's a death sentence."
— Jonathan Jarry on the score of The Prestige.


English musician and film score composer David Julyan penned the music for The Prestige. Julyan had previously collaborated with director Christopher Nolan on Memento and Insomnia. Like the film, the soundtrack was divided into three sections: the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige.

Some critics were disappointed with the score, acknowledging that while it worked within the context of the film, it was not enjoyable by itself. Jonathan Jarry of SoundtrackNet described the score as "merely functional", establishing the atmosphere of dread but never taking over. Although the reviewer was interested with the score's notion, Jarry found the execution was "extremely disappointing".

Christopher Coleman of Tracksounds felt that although it was "a perfectly fitting score", it was completely overwhelmed by the film itself, and was totally unnoticed at times. Christian Clemmensen of Filmtracks recommended the soundtrack for those who enjoyed Julyan's work on the film, and noted that it was not for those who expected "any semblance of intellect or enchantment in the score to match the story of the film." Clemmensen called the score lifeless, "constructed on a bed of simplistic string chords and dull electronic soundscapes."

Reception

Touchstone opted to move the release date up a week, from the original October 27, to October 20, 2006. The film earned $14,801,808 on opening weekend in the United States, debuting at #1. It proceeded to gross $53 million domestically and had an overall worldwide total of over $109 million. The film received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction and the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, as well as a nomination for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form in 2007.

The Prestige received generally favorable reviews from film critics, with a general consensus forming that it was full of plot twists that challenged the viewer throughout. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 75% of critics gave the film positive reviews, with an average score of 7.1/10, based upon a sample of 179 reviews. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 66, based on 36 reviews. Claudia Puig of USA Today described the film as "one of the most innovative, twisting, turning art films of the past decade." Drew McWeeny gave the film a glowing review, saying it demands repeat viewing, with Peter Travers of Rolling Stone agreeing. Richard Roeper and guest critic A.O. Scott gave the film a "two thumbs up" rating. Todd Gilchrist of IGN applauded the performances of Bale and Jackman whilst praising Nolan for making "this complex story as easily understandable and effective as he made the outwardly straightforward comic book adaptation (Batman Begins) dense and sophisticated... any truly great performance is almost as much showmanship as it is actual talent, and Nolan possesses both in spades." CNN.com and Village Voice film critic Tom Charity listed it amongst his best films of 2006. Philip French of The Observer recommended the film, comparing the rivalry between the two main characters to that of Mozart and Salieri in the highly acclaimed Amadeus.

On the other hand, Dennis Harvey of Variety criticized the film as gimmicky, though he felt the cast did well in underwritten roles. Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter felt that characters "are little more than sketches. Remove their obsessions, and the two magicians have little personality". Nonetheless, the two reviewers praised David Bowie as Tesla, as well as the production values and cinematography. On a simpler note, Emanuel Levy has said: "Whether viewers perceive The Prestige as intricately complex or just unnecessarily complicated would depend to a large degree on their willingness to suspend disbelief for two hours." He gave the film a B grade.

Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, he described the revelation at the end a "fundamental flaw" and a "cheat". He wrote, "The pledge of Nolan's The Prestige is that the film, having been metaphorically sawed in two, will be restored; it fails when it cheats, as, for example, if the whole woman produced on the stage were not the same one so unfortunately cut in two." R.J. Carter of The Trades felt, "I love a good science fiction story; just tell me in advance." He gave the film a B-. Author Christopher Priest saw the film three times as of January 5, 2007, and his reaction was "'Well, holy shit.' I was thinking, 'God, I like that,' and 'Oh, I wish I'd thought of that.'"

DVD release

The Region 1 disc is by Buena Vista Home Entertainment, and was released on February 20, 2007, and is available on DVD and BD formats. The Warner Bros. Region 2 DVD was released on March 12, 2007. It is also available in both BD and regionless HD DVD in Europe (WB was once a format-neutral studio). Special features are minimal, with the documentary Director’s Notebook: The Prestige – Five Making-of Featurettes, running roughly twenty minutes combined, an art gallery and the trailer. Nolan did not contribute to a commentary as he felt the film primarily relied on an audience's reaction and did not want to remove the mystery from the story.

Notes

  1. Shewman, Den. (Sept/Oct 2006). Nothing Up Their Sleeves: Christopher & Jonathan Nolan on the Art of Magic, Murder, and The Prestige. Creative Screenwriting. Vol. 13:5.


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