There is a moment during Christopher Nolan's film version of The Prestige when the screen is filled with a close-up image of a hand. A ball, of the sort used in old-fashioned muzzle-loading pistols, nestles in the palm of the hand. Another hand sweeps across it, once, twice, and the ball has disappeared. The second hand returns, and the ball reappears.
It is a symbolic moment in a film loaded—almost overloaded—with symbols. On a simple level, we see Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) preparing to disrupt Alfred Borden's (Christian Bale) bullet-catching trick and so launch (or escalate, depending on your point of view) the lethal rivalry that exists between these two early twentieth-century stage magicians. On another level, we are watching one of the most familiar of magic tricks, palming, in the way that magicians always want us to see them: up close. So close that everything else is blotted out of our view. We watch closely—the first words of the film, spoken in voice-over by Borden, are: "Are you watching closely?", a mantra that is repeated several times during what follows. Like the audience of any magic show we watch, knowing that we are about to be tricked, wanting to be tricked, looking for the trickery but not really wanting to see it. We examine the close-up hands for any muscle contraction, but see none; we examine the film for any cut that might indicate camera trickery, but see none. And all the time we miss what is happening beyond the frame where the greater deception is being perpetrated.
The Prestige is a film in close-up, a confined and confining film set in narrow streets, in small, dark rooms, in prison cells, a film that directs where we look and so guides what we do not see. We watch a drama—at times violent, always compelling—but the real story is something we construct only later, when the mysteries of the plot slot neatly and satisfyingly into place.
I warn you now that the revelations are not earth-shattering; they are not even, really, surprises. If we have followed Borden's advice and watched closely we have seen everything we need to understand what is happening long before it all falls into place. But that isn't the point. Early in the film Borden and Angier, at the time colleagues, are sent by Cutter (Michael Caine, in one of his very best performances of recent years) to watch the act of Ching Ling Soo, an old and feeble Chinaman who, as the climax of his act, produces a full goldfish bowl, complete with fish, as if from nowhere. As the two watch the doddering Ching Ling Soo being helped into a carriage by two young assistants, Borden reveals that he has seen through the trick straight away. The magician carries the full goldfish bowl between his legs throughout the performance, disguising his strength by pretending to be feeble even when off-stage. (Ching Ling Soo was a real turn-of-the-century magician who was, in actuality, a strapping American who spent his entire career disguising both his fitness and his race.) That Angier cannot understand the dedication or the sacrifice this entails establishes the crucial difference between the two men, which we will inevitably come back to. But the film is full of such examples of people seeing through tricks. Borden first meets his wife when her nephew instinctively recognises that making a canary disappear and reappear involves killing one of the canaries. Borden himself can see the workings of any trick, until he comes up against Angier's "Real Transported Man," which isn't actually a trick. And the very first time that Borden performs his original "Transported Man" trick, Cutter understands at once how it is done, and tells us so. The point is that we make the same choice made by every member of the audience of a magic show: we choose not to see how it is done until the whole thing is revealed to us.
Of course, those who have read Christopher Priest's 1995 novel will know all this before even entering the theatre, but that does not make the film any less full of the essentials of a good show: magic, delight, and surprise. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan have considerably recast the story in a way that tightens its dramatic unity, although I think they have thereby dissipated some of the moral complexity of the original. In the novel Borden and Angier first encounter each other when Borden disrupts a fake séance that Angier is conducting, fatally injuring Angier's wife; the moral culpability of the two characters is therefore shared, so that the consequent war between the two can be seen as a way for each to try to escape their guilt. In the film they are both working for the same magician, as plants in the audience to be called upon for his climactic trick of lowering a bound woman into a tank of water from which she then escapes. The woman is Angier's wife, Julia, and when the trick goes wrong (possibly though by no means certainly because Borden has tied the wrong knot around her wrist, one which cannot be slipped under water), Julia is drowned and Angier shares none of the guilt. The war between the two is therefore reshaped as a much simpler revenge tragedy.
The most significant divergence from Priest's novel, however, comes at the beginning of the film (and the end of the story; Nolan has chosen to disrupt the chronology of the narrative, a device which works particularly well here). Borden attempts to sabotage Angier's most successful performance, "The Real Transported Man," but something goes wrong. Angier falls through a trapdoor in the stage into a tank of water positioned beneath and is drowned (only later do we discover how terribly this echoes the death of his own wife), and Borden is condemned for his murder. There is a similar grisly parallel later, when Borden is hanged, echoing the suicide by hanging of his wife (another divergence from the original)—the film is filled with such parallels, so that we seem to be endlessly circling around the same few significant points. Most of the story is then told in flashback from Borden's cell. Interestingly, given that one of the most persistent and claustrophobic images in the film is of row upon row of birdcages filled with canaries waiting to be sacrificed for the art of magic, the condemned prisoners' yard at Newgate was known as the "Birdcage Walk"; though this is something we discover only in the introduction to the published script of the film, not in the film itself. Another curiosity: this introduction is signed by both Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, but is written throughout in the first person singular—the first word is "I"—and one has to wonder if this is a conscious echoing of the most famous aspect of Borden's diary in the novel.
The novel's use of diaries, kept by both Borden and Angier, becomes in the film a way of tying together the complex chronology. In prison, Borden is visited by a lawyer anxious to buy his tricks for a client, and offering in return Angier's diary. As Borden reads the diary we flash back to Angier visiting Colorado Springs, where he hopes to enlist Nikola Tesla (a performance of arresting stillness from David Bowie) to construct the machine that will allow him to out-do Borden's "Transported Man." Here, in the snow-covered Rockies, are the only wide vistas, the only relief from claustrophobia, in the entire film. But it is in dark, softly-lit hotel rooms that we see Angier reading Borden's diary, and this sends us back on yet another flashback to see the progress of their feud.
Shifting between diaries and times, we see Angier sabotage Borden's bullet-catch, causing Borden to lose two and a half fingers. We see Borden introduce the "Transported Man" in which he sets a ball bouncing across the stage, steps into a cabinet, and immediately emerges from an identical cabinet on the other side of the stage in time to catch the ball. That Angier, who cannot comprehend Borden's notion of sacrifice as being integral to magic, does not accept Cutter's simple and correct explanation for the trick is the crux of the whole film. Meanwhile Angier, with Cutter as his ingénieur and the glamorous assistance of Olivia (Scarlett Johansson, giving a much better and more significant performance than many critics suggest), establishes his own act, only for it to be sabotaged by Borden. In retaliation, Angier finds a double (Hugh Jackman, clearly relishing this appearance as a drunken, out-of-work actor) and performs a much more dramatic version of the "Transported Man." In this we see that though Borden is the better magician, Angier is the better showman; without realising it the two men complement each other. As a showman, Angier hates the fact that the mechanics of the trick means that he is off-stage at the climax and so cannot receive the applause he feels is his due. You suspect he would secretly be grateful when Borden spectacularly sabotages the act, except that in the process Angier breaks his leg. Next, Angier sends Olivia to spy on Borden, but in a complex shift of moralities she becomes Borden's lover, though she is also able to steal Borden's diary for Angier, which gives Angier the clue to go in search of Tesla, only to discover that this is another case of misdirection by Borden. But Tesla comes up trumps and actually invents a genuine transportation device. Meanwhile Borden's wife (Rebecca Hall) is driven increasingly to despair by the shifts in her husband's character, his devotion to his act above all, and the ever-present ingénieur Fallon (a prime example of Poe's dictum about hiding in plain view), and ends up hanging herself.
The Prestige is a film of many secrets: much is hidden, much of the film is deliberate misdirection. It follows the mechanics of a magic trick where we see very clearly what is happening but don't understand the significance. Even when all is revealed at the end (the secrets we have been staring at all the way through: "Are you watching closely?") it is a moment of pure wonder. And though this is clearly a film that will repay repeated viewing, I suspect our delight at the legerdemain, our willingness to be deceived, will not diminish. It is hard to imagine a film which so comprehensively differs in detail from its source material, and yet which is so absolutely true to its spirit.
Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.