The greatest stories are those that enlighten readers and viewers as to some truth of the human condition. Some of these compelling stories relate the positive side of humanity through tales of love, sacrifice, resilience, and redemption while others relate the darker aspects of the human psyche. One of those darker takes on human nature is a tale of vengeance, ambition, and obsession; the 2006 suspense thriller The Prestige. Through it use of twists and illusions, The Prestige reveals the dark truth about the consuming effect that ambition can have on all of us if taken to an obsessive end.
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The film begins as stage hands and amateur magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) work for Milton the Magician alongside their mentor, John Cutter (Michael Caine) and Robert’s wife, Julia (Piper Perabo). The foursome work well together until tragedy strikes and Julia drowns onstage during a water tank trick. Grief stricken, Robert blames Alfred for tying the knots on Julia’s wrists too tight, even though Julia had specifically asked Alfred to tighten them in order to make the trick more challenging. Robert and Alfred then go their separate ways and each pursues a career headlining their own magic act, with Robert becoming a master showman and Alfred remaining in obscurity despite his superior tricks. Despite his greater success, however, Robert remains bent on destroying what little remains of Alfred’s career, as a supposed show of loyalty to his deceased wife. When Alfred debuts a new trick that even the knowledgeable Cutter can’t explain, Robert becomes obsessed with finding the secret of how the trick is performed. Possessed by his fixation, Robert embarks upon a journey across continents and risks his new found fortune, fame, budding relationship with his assistant (Scarlett Johansson), and his very life to discover the secret of Alfred’s ‘Transported Man’.
In the film’s opening scene, Cutter explains that a trick is divided into three steps; the pledge, in which an ordinary object is presented; the turn, in which that object is turned into something extraordinary; and finally the prestige in which the object is returned to its natural state. In its structure, The Prestige functions in the same manner as the magic tricks that it details. It first begins with a cinematic version of ‘the pledge’ with a seemingly mundane scenario involving the working lives of Victorian era magicians. As the plot thickens, however, the film moves into its second stage in its variation of ‘the turn’, in which Robert and Alfred play an increasingly dangerous game of professional one-upmanship that culminates in the question of the Transported Man. The film concludes with an Agatha Christie style reveal that viewers will be hard pressed to guess at in a dramatic ‘prestige'.
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While The Prestige, like many films of its genre, is best remembered for the shock of its final act, it is its rising action, or ‘turn’ that truly sets it apart. In this section, the audience witnesses the ways in which the two rivals allow themselves to become consumed by their shared craft. Rather than enjoy his success, Robert continues to torment himself and those around him by remaining fixated on Alfred’s trick. Similarly, Alfred is unable to devote himself to his family because his work remains his first and foremost priority. Over the course of the film, both men sacrifice the women that they love as Robert instructs his love interest and assistant, Olivia, to seduce Alfred in hopes of gaining access to his secrets and Alfred remains emotionally detached from both Olivia and his dedicated wife, Sarah (Rebecca Hall). Both men also lose their relationships with their closest friends as Robert’s actions eventually alienate him from Cutter and Alfred’s isolate him from his stage engineer, the mysterious Bernard Fallon. The truly disturbing aspect of this section of the film is the way that the characters are just as aware of the downward spiral that they are engaged in as the audience, and yet remain powerless to stop their insatiable ambitions. While it could be argued that the extent of the leads obsessions are exaggerated for thematic purposes, there are numerous examples throughout history and in the present day that indicate otherwise. Passion can be a beautiful thing that drives us to go beyond our limits to pursue the things we want most, but as The Prestige aptly illustrates, the divider between passion and obsession is often a fine and blurry line.
The film is also notable for its blending of history and fiction to tell a story that is both believable and original. In reality, magicians in the Victorian era utilized tricks that were similar to those seen in the film and were known to maintain absolute discipline in order to retain the illusion of those tricks. The sabotaging of rival acts was also a common occurrence, with magicians regularly revealing each other’s secrets and disrupting rival performances. Perhaps the most striking historical tie in is the film’s use of real-life inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) as a character who plays a crucial role in Robert’s finally out-smarting Alfred. While Tesla did not create the device shown in the film, he did discover alternating current and his designs fueled the invention of the radio and modern wireless technology. He was also an enigmatic figure equally renowned for his eccentricities and scientific innovations. By using the realities of the dawn of modern entertainment and technology in the Victorian era as a springboard for it fantastic plot, the film successfully keeps the story grounded and ensures that viewers never see through its many illusions.
Through its combination of superb performances from its star-studded cast, innovate script, and dazzling effects, The Prestige is nothing short of spellbinding. While on one level a tale of incredible feats, the film at its heart remains a truly human tale of the consuming power of ambition. As a result, despite the historical setting and use of speculative science fiction, the characters and motives remain truly timeless. Regardless of its many twists and turns there is one aspect of The Prestige that is definitely not an illusion; its well earned status as a modern classic.
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