The Prestige is a 2006 English-language 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. 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.
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, Rebecca Hall, and Andy Serkis. 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 positive reviews and strong box office results, and obtained Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction.
Magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is on trial for murder, accused of killing his lifelong rival, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). They had first begun working together as ringers for “Milton the Magician” (Ricky Jay), with John Cutter (Michael Caine) as Milton’s engineer of illusions. Angier’s wife, Julia (Piper Perabo), drowns while performing a predicament escape from a Chinese water torture cell; Angier suspects Borden purposely bound her wrists with a difficult knot, making him responsible for her death. At the funeral, Borden enrages Angier by saying he doesn’t know which knot he tied.
The two men begin competing magic careers: Borden becomes “The Professor” and hires the enigmatic Bernard Fallon as his engineer; Angier performs as “The Great Danton” with Cutter and his assistant, Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson). During a parlor magic job, Borden meets Sarah (Rebecca Hall); they marry and have a daughter, Jess. Both magicians begin to disrupt each other’s acts: Angier interferes with Borden’s performance of the bullet catch, severing two of Borden’s fingers, and a disguised Borden sabotages Angier’s performance of the vanishing bird cage illusion, damaging Angier’s reputation.
Borden soon astonishes crowds with his new illusion, “The Transported Man”, where he enters one cabinet and reappears a moment later in another one. Angier and Cutter argue over how Borden performs the trick with Cutter insisting that Borden uses a double and Angier insisting that there is a more complex explanation. They end up hiring a dissolute actor, Root (also played by Jackman), to be a double for Angier and steal Borden’s act, calling it “The New Transported Man”. Not content with having a more popular act, Angier sends Olivia to Borden in order to seduce him and discover the secret of his trick. However Olivia falls in love with Borden and leaves Angier, giving him an encrypted diary of Borden’s as a parting gift. Borden then sabotages Angier’s act, leaving Angier with a permanent limp. In retaliation, Angier and Cutter kidnap Fallon and bury him alive, demanding the secret to Borden’s trick in exchange for his release. Borden gives Angier the name of inventor Nikola Tesla, insisting this is the key to both his encoded diary and to his trick.
Angier, now abandoned by Cutter who disapproves of his obsessive quest, travels to Colorado Springs to meet Tesla (David Bowie). He pays Tesla to make the same teleportation machine that Borden had. Angier learns from Borden’s notebook that he has been sent on a wild goose chase. Feeling cheated, he returns to Tesla’s lab to demand his money back, but discovers Tesla’s machine creates an exact duplicate of an object and leaves the original intact. Tesla leaves Colorado Springs after his rival, Thomas Edison, sends henchmen to torch his lab, leaving the machine for Angier with a warning to destroy it.
Meanwhile, Borden’s relationship with Olivia takes a heavy emotional toll on Sarah, and she eventually hangs herself. Angier returns to London to produce his new act, “The Real Transported Man”. Borden attends Angier’s performance again and slips backstage just in time to see Angier fall from a trap door into a locked water tank. Borden tries to save him, but Angier drowns before his eyes. Cutter catches Borden, who is convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
In prison awaiting execution, Borden is visited by a representative of a mysterious Lord Caldlow. Caldlow is a fan of stage magic and wishes to purchase the secrets to all of Borden’s tricks. In exchange, Caldlow agrees to adopt and raise Borden’s daughter Jess, who, being an orphan, would otherwise become a ward of the court and sent to a workhouse in the wake of Borden’s execution. Borden is given Angier’s diary as a gesture of good faith and while reading it encounters a shocking reference to his current incarceration. Borden insists on meeting Lord Caldlow personally in order to give him the secret to the Transported Man. When Caldlow arrives, Borden recognizes him as Angier, having mysteriously returned from the dead. Angier triumphantly rips up the paper containing the explanation of Borden’s trick and then leaves with Borden’s daughter. A short time later, Borden is executed by hanging.
Meanwhile, Cutter learns that Lord Caldlow has bought all of Angier’s old effects, including the Tesla device, and meets him to argue for the destruction of the machine. He is horrified when he recognizes Caldlow as his old friend and sees Borden’s daughter with him. Angier explains that he had always been Lord Caldlow and had merely pretended to be the American Robert Angier in order to spare his family the embarrassment of his theatrical career.
Cutter accompanies Angier to an abandoned building filled with tanks, and helps him store Tesla’s machine. Cutter leaves, silently acknowledging the arrival of a very-much-alive Borden, who shoots Angier. As Angier lies dying, Borden reveals that he had an identical twin. They lived as Fallon and Alfred, alternating between each role. One twin (the one still alive) was the husband of Sarah and father to Jess, and loved Sarah more than the magic; the other loved Olivia. They played one individual in life and in the illusions. Borden reminds Angier of a Chinese magician they saw together years ago who pretended to have a limp when ever he was in public so he could use this to conceal his methods on stage and that the way he lived his life was the actual illusion. Borden tells Angier his devotion to the illusion was such that he and his twin were willing to live the same life in order to conceal their methods. Angier’s method is also revealed: During the illusion, the machine created a duplicate of Angier, with one falling through a trap door into a locked tank and drowning, and the other being teleported to the balcony. This was always Angier’s intention – to frame Borden for his murder as he knew sooner or later Borden would try and discover the secret to the trick by sneaking backstage to be caught watching Angier drowning. Borden leaves Angier to die as a fire consumes the building. Afterwards, Cutter reunites Borden with his daughter. A final shot shows that each tank in the abandoned building contained a drowned Angier.
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First Published: Dec 23, 2012 – Last Updated: Feb 16, 2013