'The Prestige,' Russian Doll Narrative, and the Meaning of Life
Christopher Nolan's fifth film is a marvel of craft.
This post was originally published on May 17, 2023. AFD has since switched platforms, and for technical reasons, this post didn’t port over. Since my next essay is taking longer than expected and Christopher Nolan and Oppenheimer are likely to win Golden Globe awards this weekend, today seemed like a good time to re-publish it. It contains spoilers for The Prestige. Enjoy!
Although appreciation for The Prestige has certainly grown in tandem with the stature of director and co-writer Christopher Nolan, it remains the most undervalued film in the auteur's oeuvre. There are likely a few reasons why the movie's genius is often overlooked. These include that it was the second of two period pieces about magicians released in 2006, after the better-branded but otherwise inferior The Illusionist; that Nolan made it in-between his first two Batman films, all of which had a much bigger PR machine behind them; and that while it's a marvel in terms of craft, and I personally find it to be incredibly profound, it's emotionally chilly and often, for lack of a more poetic term, bleak as fuck.
But it is a marvel in terms of craft, and deserves to be celebrated as such, if for no other reason.
The Prestige is loosely adapted, by Nolan and his brother/frequent collaborator, Jonathan (sometimes 'Jonah') Nolan, from a Christopher Priest novel of the same name. Set predominantly in late-19th century London, the story follows two rival illusionists, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), as they ostensibly engage in warfare over the course of many years. Told linearly, the events of the movie are as follows (and please feel free to skip over all of this if you're already familiar with the film):
Borden is working class, and his aspirations of stardom are driven by a desire for a more prosperous life; Angier comes from a monied family and performs under a stage name to save them any embarrassment - he loves performing not because of the potential income it offers, but because he feeds off the adulation of the audience. The two initially meet early in their respective careers, when they're both working for Cutter (Michael Caine), an engineer who designs illusions for stage magicians. Every night, a veteran illusionist, Milton (a brief cameo from Ricky Jay, one of the greatest stage magicians of all time), draws volunteers from his audience; those volunteers are given rope to tie up Milton's assistant, Julia (Piper Perabo), who is then submerged in a transparent tank of water from which she daringly escapes. Unbeknownst to the paying members of the crowd, however, the "volunteers" are actually plants - Borden and Angier - who are in on the trick and thus deliberately tie only knots from which Julia can liberate herself. Furthermore, Julia is, in fact, Angier's wife.
One night, however, Julia is unable to untie the knots in time, and drowns on stage. Angier blames Borden, who may or may not have tied an overly-dangerous type of knot instead of the trick one he was meant to employ (pressed on the matter, Borden claims he cannot remember which style he utilized).
Borden and Angier each begin their own "solo careers" (for lack of a better term) - Angier with Cutter and Borden with another engineer, Fallon. Seeking revenge for Julia's death, Angier sabotages one of Borden's performances, resulting in Borden losing a finger; Borden retaliates in kind, resulting in one of Angier's audience members being badly injured (thus sullying Angier's reputation and making it more difficult for him to book gigs). Borden meets, falls in love with, and weds a young woman, Sarah (Rebecca Hall). They have a daughter, Jess (Samantha Mahurin), and Angier becomes envious of Borden's familial bliss, feeling it would have been his had Julia not died. This despite the fact that Angier himself begins an affair with his on-stage assistant, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson).
Borden, meanwhile, introduces a fantastic new illusion, 'The Transported Man,' in which he appears to disappear and re-materialize on opposite sides of the stage in the blink of an eye. Cutter insists that Borden must be using a double, but Angier doesn't buy it. Still, Cutter is unable to discern any alternative methodology with which to execute the illusion. Ultimately he hires an actor who looks like Angier, Gerald Root (also Jackman, with some prosthetics), so that Angier can perform his own version of the trick.
But that's not good enough for Angier! Root can only be used as the re-appearing man in the trick (if he talks, the audience will quickly realize he's not Angier), which means that Angier is always hiding beneath the stage during the curtain call. He must know how Borden does it!!! So he dispatches Olivia to work as Borden's assistant so she can spy on him and learn how he does The Transported Man. Unfortunately, while Olivia is able to procure Borden's diary for Angier, that diary is written in a cipher, and she is not able to acquire the keyword necessary to decode it. Adding injury to insult, Olivia falls in love with Borden, helps him sabotage Angier's act (again), and then quits working for Angier.
Angier kidnaps Fallon and ransoms him for the keyword that will unlock Borden's diary: 'Tesla.' Borden assumes this means that Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) created The Transported Man, and he travels to Colorado, where he persuades Tesla to build him an identical illusion. The bad news is, Angier does all this before he finishes reading Borden's diary, which, he comes to realize, is a fake. The good news is, Tesla does build a machine that duplicates things and deposits their doppelgänger a short distance away. Angier returns to London with his version of The Transported Man, which is superior to Borden's: Whereas Borden goes from one side of the stage to the other in a millisecond, Angier goes from one side of the theater to the other in the same amount of time.
Things only get worse for Borden from there. Sarah, feeling that Borden can almost be like two entirely different people at times, dies by suicide... and then Olivia, disgusted by what she perceives to be Borden's callous reaction to his wife's death, leaves him. Borden becomes increasingly obsessed with figuring out how Angier performs his more impressive iteration of The Transported Man, and sneaks beneath Angier's stage one night to ascertain the secret. Something seems to go wrong with the trick, however, and Angier ends up drowning in a tank of water, much as Julia did. In court, Cutter testifies that the tank wasn't part of the illusion; thus, Borden is convicted of murdering Angier, and is sentenced to hang.
While in prison awaiting his execution, Borden is visited by Owens (Roger Rees), a solicitor working for the mysterious, wealthy Lord Caldlow. Caldlow is willing to adopt Borden's soon-to-be-orphaned daughter if Borden will reveal the secret of the original Transported Man. Borden would prefer that Fallon take custody of Jess, but fears the court won't allow it. Owens leaves Borden with Angier's diary, which he reads while he considers Lord Caldlow's offer.
Borden does, indeed, accept Caldlow's offer - only to learn that Caldlow is Angier. Angier was using Tesla's machine to duplicate himself; one version would appear on the opposite side of the theater, while the other would fall below the stage into a tank of water, where they'd drown. Borden has been set up. It's too late for him to do anything about it, though, and he is, indeed, hung (his last words are "abracadabra" - and to think, people accuse Nolan of being humorless!).
Angier thinks he's won... except Fallon shows up, shoots Angier, and tears some prosthetics from his face, revealing that he and Borden were identical twins - that's how they did Borden's version of The Transported Man. Their devotion to keeping the secret of the illusion was so great that they kept their existence a secret from everyone, including Sarah and Olivia; and when Angier cost one Borden his finger, the other Borden had to cut the identical finger off. Angier dies from his gunshot wound, and Borden is reunited with his daughter, giving the story something resembling a "happy" ending.
Still with me? Great. Let's continue.
Here's the thing: Although those are the events of The Prestige laid out linearly, the actual film does not unfold in a strictly linear fashion. Rather, the narrative is conveyed via a Russian Doll structure: It's a story within a story within a story. And that's not just a big part of what makes the movie so impressive - it's also what lends the story a lot of its meaning.
The Prestige transpires over three timelines:
In the present (relative to the story), Borden is on trial for the murder of Angier. While imprisoned, he reads Angier's diary, which has been given to him by Owens.
In Angier's diary, Angier travels to Colorado to meet Tesla. During the trip, he reads Borden's diary, which has been given to him by Olivia.
In Borden's diary, Borden explains how the duo's rivalry began, filling us in on the details of the story up to the point where Angier's diary begins.
Purely from the standpoint of entertaining the audience, the decision to tell the story non-linearly makes some sense: It's much more exciting to open with Angier's death and Borden's trial than to open with Angier and Borden working as audience plants.
It also allows Nolan to bypass some of the limitations of a film's running time, presenting certain events in quick strokes that don't bump up against the viewer despite being somewhat vague.
But, most importantly, it allows us, the audience, to view the story through the eyes of its dual protagonists, and to tell us more about these characters without necessarily telling us anything (when people complain that Nolan's characters are thin, they're usually expressing a desire, conscious or otherwise, for a heavy-handed monologue in which a character explains their entire backstory).
Under the best of circumstances, these advantages will converge. For example: Nolan doesn't really have the space to develop Borden and Sarah's romance in the middle of this extremely eventful 130-minute movie (125 minutes without the credits). Sure, we can tell that they have chemistry, and Bale and Hall are both very attractive people, but we're really told that they've fallen in love more than we're shown it (again, this is not the most emotionally-warm movie ever made). In many (if not most) films, that would stick out as a real problem - but since we're learning about their courtship through the eyes of Angier, who is learning about it through Borden's diary, it works. Either Borden didn't write much about his love of Sarah or Angier didn't really give a shit and skipped over it - both possibilities seem equally plausible, and both are equally telling about the characters (and when you consider that Borden's diary was actually authored by two men, one of whom really did love Sarah and one of whom truly did not, glossing over the details of their relationship makes even more sense).
If all Nolan wanted to do was use non-linear storytelling as a way of maintaining audience engagement and spackling over some narrative shortcomings, that would probably be justification enough (see: J.J. Abrams). But Nolan, working with Lee Smith, also sets some strict formalistic limits on himself: Specifically, while he moves between the three timelines throughout the course of the film, he never leapfrogs over the second timeline to reach the first or third. In other words, if he wants to travel from the events of Borden's diary to Borden sitting in prison, we have to travel through Angier's diary to get there. This stands in stark contrast to, for example, the noble-but-flawed film adaptation of Cloud Atlas, in which the filmmakers cut between multiple timelines pretty much any way they see fit throughout the movie. Nolan marries form and function in a much stronger way; leaving one timeline for another requires actual narrative motivation... and this, in turn, once again allows the audience to truly see the story through its protagonists eyes: We never know anything that they do not. We learn about Borden's secret at the same time as Angier, and we share Borden's horror when he realizes Angier has ostensibly been murdering a version of himself night after night (the film's haunting final shot is of literally dozens of water tanks containing Angier corpses).
And on top of all of that, the fact that we are constantly, seamlessly criss-crossing through these timelines means that in many regards, Angier and Borden become entangled in our mind; after an initial viewing, it might be difficult to remember who was actually conveying the story when. Which, once again, might sound like a problem - but, once again, is actually part of the point here. Because...
Borden and Angier have criss-crossing character arcs.
At the start of the story, Angier is in love, first and foremost, with his wife, while Borden is most passionate about his career. This is exemplified early in the film, when Cutter sends the duo to go see Chung Ling Soo (Chao Li Chi), and challenges them to figure out how he performs a particular trick. The answer would simple enough if Chung Ling Soo was a healthy young man, but he's elderly, frail, and physically disabled. Still, Borden figures out the secret immediately: Chung Ling Soo is only pretending to be old and sickly... even when he's in public (after all, people could be watching). Borden is, after all, concealing the existence of an entire other human being just to make his illusion work. Angier can't fathom living his life that way, telling Julia such commitment to the act would be "unthinkable."
But by the end of the story, they've switched: Borden wants nothing so much as custody of his daughter, and Angier is literally willing to kill himself in order to be the better magician. 'Fallon' warns Borden not to obsess over Angier's success for fear of where it might lead, and before his execution, Borden admits to his twin, "You were right. I should have left him to his damn trick. I'm sorry. I'm sorry about a lot of things. I'm sorry about Sarah... You live your life in full now, all right? You live for both us." Angier, by way of contrast, uses his dying breaths to tell the surviving Borden brother:
"You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth. The world is simple. It's miserable. Solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you get to see something very special... the look on their faces."
Angier has been Borden, and Borden has been Angier, and we, the viewer, have been both. Nolan ties everything up together because, well... it's all tied up together. That's the whole point.
Nolan's work has always been rooted in philosophy, and The Prestige dramatizes an existential question - "What is love without some sense of personal achievement, and what is personal achievement without love?" - with each character representing an argument in favor of one direction or the other. So who is "right"?
This is what makes The Prestige truly profound: By muddling the protagonists' arcs, it denies the audience an easy answer. At the conclusion of the story, each man thinks he has "won" the fight, even despite one of them dying. Even the waymarks filmmakers frequently use to signal their feelings to the audience are co-mingled: Composer David Julyan's generally-understated score swells almost triumphantly beneath Angier's final speech, and then takes on a creepier vibe as Borden realizes he's standing in a room full of dead clones. Both points of view get "equal time."
That may make Nolan seem shallow: Is he seriously advocating for advancement of career over interpersonal connection? But I'm not sure that he is (although 2014's Interstellar certainly suggests that he might be) so much as he's acknowledging that in the modern world, this issue is not so black and white as most people like to believe. What sacrifices to your personal life have you made to advance your career, and what sacrifices to your career have you made for your personal life? Would you be willing to give up one for the other, and vice versa? Do you regret your decisions, even if those decisions made you the person you are today (it seems unlikely that Borden would ever have come to realize how much he loves his daughter had he not first love his wife, his brother, and his livelihood)? If you're being honest with yourself, my guess is that these aren't simple questions with simple answers. As I said: Everything is all tied up together.
The Prestige reportedly cost $40 million to produce and made roughly $109 million worldwide, which would mean it was barely profitable (the generally-accepted formula is that, given not only production costs but distribution and promotion costs, a movie needs to make 2.5 times its budget to be in the black). Maybe that's why the next time Nolan used a Russian Doll narrative, in 2010's Inception, he made it part of the story (the "layers" of the dream), so characters could basically wave their arms in their air and say "Look how impressive this is!". And it worked! Even naysayers admit that Inception is an ambitious piece of work, while The Prestige is still considered a relatively minor work. Subtly isn't for everyone.