The title of The Greatest Showman, out this week, refers to the 19th-century circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum, though it could just as well refer to the movie’s star. Hugh Jackman has proved again and again that he is a bottomless well of leading-man charisma – a fountain of pure charm. As an old-fashioned song-and-dance man he has commanded many a stage, and has hosted the Tonys enough times to worry Neil Patrick Harris. His performance at the 2009 Oscars is something to behold. Clearly he was a shoe-in for the Barnum role – but have we already seen his greatest showmanship in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 classic The Prestige?
The role of Robert Angier, one of a pair of feuding Victorian magicians, wasn’t written for Jackman, but it is hard to imagine anyone filling his shiny shoes quite so perfectly. On the surface, Angier has a lot of that Barnumesque charm. His polished stage patter lends the world of professional magic some allure, and it’s what initially gives him the advantage over rival magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). But Jackman also excels at playing Angier off-stage, where a mixture of trauma and obsession drives him to ever-darker territory. This is the sort of gravitas-rich performance that earned Logan a spot on our Top 20, and it is absolute dynamite seeing both sides of the Jackman coin in one film.
In a film so preoccupied with doubles, it would be remiss to praise Jackman and not his co-star. Though Bale was working simultaneously with Nolan on this and the Dark Knight trilogy, his Borden is the opposite of Batman: firmly working-class, morally grey, and less concerned with theatrics than either Angier or the Caped Crusader. Borden is a stark contrast to dandyish Angier, and we are initially led to see Angier as the story’s hero, and Borden its villain. Bale keeps his performance complex and even sympathetic enough, though, that as the rivalry gets uglier we see that neither character is morally pure. Bale also masters the tricky task of contrasting Borden against himself. His portrayal of the magician’s mercurial personality is subtle but effective, and is particularly rewarding on repeat viewings.
One more cast member to discuss before moving onto The Prestige as a whole: David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. Though barely more than a cameo, it’s an inspired bit of casting. Tesla is more or less an alien figure, bestowing “real magic” upon the humans by way of his advanced technology. So as not to feel like a cheap plot device, Tesla had to make an impact. Who better to play a charismatic alien than David Bowie? It works on a meta-level too: since Bowie is so recognisable, Tesla feels more incongruous, more like an alien, less like a mortal. It shouldn’t work, but the effect is worthy of a future Scene Stealers column.
Let’s zoom out. The Prestige is remarkable for its structure: a classic Nolan puzzle box that hides its secrets without sacrificing narrative clarity or pure entertainment value. With its non-linear time frame and stories within stories, it’s a close cousin to Inception, though it’s relatively restrained next to that dream-bending blockbuster. Nolan (with screenwriter/brother Jonathan Nolan) keeps the tone and pacing of the film tightly structured, even when the timeline wanders. We see the causes and consequences of the magicians’ feud play out alongside each other, with the cumulative effect of a steadily rising dread.
Another element The Prestige shares with Inception is the con-artist/heist movie DNA in its blood. Where Inception literally features conmen and heists (albeit metaphysical ones), The Prestige replicates the “ta-da!” ingredient of films like The Sting and Ocean’s Eleven. You know the sort of thing: for the big finale, an unexpected and seemingly impossible feat is pulled off; the magic trick is complete, but the film takes extra delight in showing you the mechanics of how, for example, Danny Ocean robbed the Bellagio after all. It flies in the face of Borden’s advice…
“They’ll beg you for the secret, but as soon as you give it up you’ll be nothing to them. The secret impresses no-one. The trick you use it for is everything.”
…but, when done well, the solution is just as fascinating as the problem. Moreover, like any good ingénieur, Nolan knows how to play fair with his mechanics. The secrets to Angier’s and Borden’s greatest tricks are openly alluded to throughout the movie, but through the magician’s art of misdirection are concealed until the finale.
Spoiler warning: I’ll be discussing The Prestige’s big twists below this image.
“Are you watching closely?”
Many lines and scenes in The Prestige serve a double purpose: they drive character, drama and atmosphere, but in hindsight point directly to the magicians’ secrets. The opening shot of a field full of top hats; Borden’s alternating love for Sarah and Olivia; Angier’s death in an apparently botched trick – all reveal the reality of The Transported Man. Cutter (Michael Caine) even outright says that Borden has a double, and the way Nolan gets his audience to ignore that has been very nicely dissected by Mike D’Angelo at the A.V. Club.
Unlike Inception, where the structure may blow your mind initially but starts to creak on multiple viewings, The Prestige is engineered to withstand scrutiny and even become more satisfying on a second watch. Knowing that Bale is playing two men, and knowing how literally Angier is willing to destroy himself to fulfil his obsession, are pleasures only available after the movie has been “spoiled”. Its twists are set up so well that they become “un-twists” in hindsight: just the most logical, obvious explanations. For a similar approach to twists and misdirection, see Rian Johnson’s lovely The Brothers Bloom. Why did we miss these moments the first time around? Partly the Nolans brothers’ skills behind the scenes, and partly something Cutter explains better than I could:
“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.”