The Prestige is a 2006 British-American mystery thriller film written, directed, and co-produced by Christopher Nolan, with a screenplay adapted from Christopher Priest's 1995 novel of the same name. It was distributed by Touchstone Pictures. The story follows Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, rival stage magicians in London at the end of the 19th century. Obsessed with creating the best stage illusion, they engage in competitive one-upmanship with tragic results.
Priest's epistolary novel was adapted to the screen by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan Nolan, using nonlinear narrative structure. The film was released on October 20, 2006, receiving positive reviews and strong box office results, and Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction.
A magician shows a girl a magic trick, causing a bird to vanish and then reappear in his hand. Magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is sentenced for the murder of rival Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). Both were assistants for "Milton the Magician" (Ricky Jay) with ingénieur John Cutter (Michael Caine). Angier's wife Julia (Piper Perabo) drowned performing a water cell act and Angier blames Borden, who professes not to remember if he had tied her with an inappropriate knot. The two become bitter competitors, disrupting each other's acts. Borden becomes "The Professor" with the enigmatic Bernard Fallon as his ingénieur while Angier becomes "The Great Danton" with the lovely Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson) and Cutter assisting. The magic trick from the beginning of the movie is explained: the original bird is crushed and replaced with a double. Angier is incensed when Borden meets and marries Sarah (Rebecca Hall) and they have a daughter, Jess (Samantha Mahurin). Angier sabotages Borden's bullet catch, costing Borden two fingers. Borden then ruins Angier's victimless bird cage act, maiming an audience member, killing the dove, and damaging Angier's reputation.
Borden soon surprises with "The Transported Man," where he enters one cabinet and exits another. Angier and Cutter argue over its possibility, with Cutter insisting it is a double and Angier refusing to accept the possibility. Unable to understand Borden's trick, Angier hires a look-alike (but dissolute drunk) actor Root (also played by Jackman) to allow him to steal Borden's general idea. "The New Transported Man" is a success, but Angier resents hiding under the stage as Root gets the applause. He sends Olivia to discover Borden’s secret but she resents the obsession and falls in love with Borden instead; she leaves Borden's encrypted diary of tricks to Angier as a parting gift. Borden already understood Angier's trick, but Olivia allows him to influence Root to ask for more pay; Borden then completely ruins the act by removing a pad below the stage's trap door, crippling Angier, and displaying a tied-up Root before the audience, turning the routine into an advertisement for his own show. Angier and Cutter capture and bury Fallon alive to be released for the key to Borden's trick and the keyword to the diary's cipher. Borden professes that both are "Tesla" and Angier pursues Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to Colorado Springs alone after Cutter abandons him to his obsession. Angier pays Tesla to make a copy of a teleportation machine that he believed Borden used, providing the inventor with much-needed financing after Edison's smear campaign proves successful in drying up other sources. Angier finishes deciphering Borden's diary to discover it was a fraud supplied by Olivia, but an angry confrontation with Tesla reveals that his machine actually works, but creates duplicates. Thomas Edison's henchmen arrive to torch the lab and Tesla leaves, although not before completing Angier's machine and warning him to destroy it. Meanwhile, Borden's preoccupation with magic and affair with Olivia alienate Sarah, who hangs herself. Borden's cold response then leaves Olivia disaffected.
Angier returns to London, electrifying audiences with "The Real Transported Man", vanishing within the machine and reappearing in the back of the hall. In reality, the machine creates a duplicate; it is left unclear whether the original Angier is teleported or remains in the machine, but the one left in the machine falls through a trap door and plunges into a water cell, drowning. The tanks are disposed of by blind stage hands every night. Borden witnesses Angier drown while snooping backstage and tries to save him but is caught and convicted of murder, the opening of the film. In prison, Borden is visited by the agent of a Lord Caldlow, who offers to care for Jess in exchange for Borden's secrets. Borden is given Angier's diary and finds his conviction has been orchestrated, then discovers that Lord Caldlow is the yet-living Angier when the lord arrives to collect the secrets. Borden attempts to give them but Caldlow rips them to pieces without reading them, before leaving with Jess. Borden is hanged, after commanding Fallon to live for them both.
Cutter learns that Caldlow has bought all of Angier's tricks, including the machine, and visits Caldlow's estate to plead for its destruction. He recognises Angier, who admits he has always been Lord Caldlow but pretended to be the American Robert Angier to spare his family the embarrassment of his theatrical career. Cutter realises Borden's death was planned but, unable to have Caldlow come forward, accompanies him to store Tesla's machine beneath his theatre among the tanks previously used for the duplicates. On his way out, Cutter recognises and nods to Fallon as Fallon enters and shoots Caldlow. Fallon's disguise removed, he tells the dying Caldlow that he and Borden were identical twins who shared their lives on stage and off. He removed the ends of his own fingers to duplicate Borden's injury and the two shared lovers to maintain the illusion of being a single man. Fallon reveals they each loved one woman — Fallon loved their late wife Sarah and survived, while Borden loved their mistress Olivia and died. Caldlow reveals his machine's own trick, repeatedly recreating Julia's suffering in order to bask in the admiration of the crowd. Borden leaves him to die as a fire consumes the building. The first scene of the film replays, with the magician (now known to be Cutter) vanishing (killing) the bird for the delight of the little girl (Jess). This time, the scene continues and Fallon/Borden appears to reclaim his daughter.
- Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier/The Great Danton, an aristocratic magician. After reading the script, Jackman expressed interest in playing the part. Christopher Nolan discovered Jackman was interested in the script, and after meeting 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/The Professor/Bernard Fallon, a working-class magician. Christian Bale expressed interest in playing the part, 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 (ingenieur) who works with Angier and Borden. 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 film. 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."
- Piper Perabo as Julia McCullough, Angier's wife.
- 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 the film itself takes place in London. Hall said that she "was starstruck just to be involved in [the film]".
- Scarlett Johansson as Olivia Wenscombe, Angier's assistant and lover. Nolan said that he was "very keen" for Johansson to play 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 teleportation 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 Bowie, who initially turned down the part. A lifelong fan, Nolan flew out to New York to pitch the role to Bowie in person, telling him no one else could possibly play the part; Bowie accepted after a few minutes.
- 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.
Julian Jarrold's and Sam Mendes' 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 Nolan's attention. In October 2000, Nolan traveled to the United Kingdom to publicize Memento, as Newmarket Films was having difficulty finding a United States distributor. While in London, Nolan read Priest's book and shared the story with his brother while walking around in Highgate (a location later featured in the scene where Angier ransoms Borden's ingénieur in Highgate Cemetery). 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.
A year later, the option on the book became available and was purchased by Aaron Ryder of Newmarket Films. In late 2001, Nolan became busy with the post-production of Insomnia, and asked his brother Jonathan 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 in the mise en scene. Priest approved of the adaptation, describing it as "an extraordinary and brilliant script, a fascinating adaptation of my novel."
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. Jonathan Nolan visited Colorado Springs to research Nikola Tesla and based the electric bulb scene on actual experiments conducted by Tesla. Nathan Crowley helped design the scene for Tesla's invention; It was shot in the parking lot of the Mount Wilson Observatory. Influenced by a "Victorian modernist aesthetic", Crowley chose four locations in the Broadway theater district in downtown Los Angeles for the film's stage magic performances: the Los Angeles Theatre, the Palace Theatre, the Los Angeles Belasco, and the Tower Theatre. Crowley also turned a portion of the Universal back lot into Victorian London.
Osgood Castle in Colorado was used as a location.
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 Colorado 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. 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.
Editing, scoring and mixing finished on September 22, 2006. The song "Analyse" by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke is played over the credits.
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 a great deal of money and Cutter's friendship, while providing him with a collection of his own suicide victims; Borden's obsession with maintaining the secrecy of his twin leads Sarah to question their relationship eventually resulting in her suicide when she suspects the truth. Angier and one of the twins both lose Olivia's love because of their "inhumanity". Finally, a Borden is hanged and the last copy of Angier shot. 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, elitist showman whose accent makes him appear American. Film critic Matt Brunson claimed that a complex theme of duality is exemplified by Angier and Borden, that the film chooses not to depict either magician as good or evil.
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. In the book, Tesla and Edison serve as foils for Borden and Angier, respectively. Historically, Tesla is considered a genius without a sense of pragmatism (like Borden's character), and Edison is viewed as an expert in application and presentation (like Angier).
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":
Angier's technological solution – which suggests art as sacrifice, a phoenix-like death of the self – and Borden's more meat-and-potatoes form of stagecraft embody the divide between the artist and the social being.
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."
Disney 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 $109 million, of which $53 million was from the United States. 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. Along with The Illusionist and Scoop (coincidentally, also starring Jackman and Johansson), The Prestige was one of three films in 2006 to explore the world of stage magicians.
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 (before HD DVD was canceled). 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.
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