We have had a few weeks the like of which are such as to make one want to declare a moratorium on death itself. The emperor of maladies has taken a heavy toll, and we are all left saddened and diminished and perhaps a little more conscious of the dark.
One feels obliged to make some gesture of remembrance, but one is horribly spoilt for choice at the moment. I could revisit Galaxy Quest or Toxic Avenger IV with equal justification. But instead I am going to take another look at Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige, which is notable for what turned out to be one of the final acting roles for David Bowie.
I would be lying if I said I was among the many people left feeling desolated by Bowie’s recent death, but I understand the magnitutde of his achievements and his presence in popular culture, not just as a musician but also as a film actor. Perhaps inevitably, the two seemed to feed into one another – Bowie’s most celebrated screen appearance, playing the alien visitor Thomas Newton in the film I should really be reviewing, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, surely owes a lot to the Ziggy Stardust persona he had created a few years earlier. Nolan himself said that no-one else could possibly have played Bowie’s role in this film, and from a certain point of view it is easy to understand why.
The Prestige is based on a novel by the underrated British writer Christopher Priest, and – not unusually for a Nolan production – it takes a while for its actual subject matter to become clear. The narrative is complex and oblique, with flashbacks within flashbacks, sections of apparently unreliable narration, and large quantities of smoke and mirrors. But this is only as it should be, for the film is about stage magic and its practitioners, and the differences between them and the makers of genuine wizardry.
Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play Angier and Borden, two young men at the beginnings of careers as magicians in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London. Angier is aristocratic and a born showman, but a somewhat indifferent student of the craft – the lower-born Borden is a brilliant instinctive magician, but lacks his rival’s charisma. Tragedy strikes when Angier’s wife dies in an accident on stage, an accident Borden may have been responsible for. And thus begins a terrible feud.
The rivals begin by sabotaging each others’ performances, until Borden premieres an incredible new illusion he calls the Transported Man. Angier’s determination to outdo his enemy leads him to incredible lengths in search of the secret of how the illusion is performed, and his obsession drives away those closest to him – his assistant (Scarlett Johansson) and advisor (Michael Caine). Notes stolen from Borden lead him on a long journey to the heart of America, in search of the reclusive genius Nikola Tesla, whom Angier believes can build a machine that will end the conflict between the two men forever…
Tesla is, of course, played by Bowie, and – somewhat contrary to the great man’s reputation – a rather subdued and understated performance it is too. Nothing wrong with that, of course, for it’s entirely appropriate for the film. Quite how historically accurate a portrait of Tesla this is, is a good question – probably not very, if we’re honest. But Tesla’s role in the film is to be an enigma, an individual on the border between reality and myth, an irresistibly charismatic person who still is not really fully understood – and, as I say, it’s very understandable that Nolan should have wanted to secure David Bowie’s services for the role. It’s a small but crucial part, and one which is essential to the development of The Prestige‘s narrative.
I believe I read a review once which cried foul with regard to this film’s final act, suggesting that by introducing, in the form of Tesla’s miraculous machine, a strong element of SF or fantasy into what had previously been a relatively ‘straight’ drama, Nolan was in some way cheating, moving the goal posts. I can kind of see where this attitude is coming from – this is a film about real-world magic, after all, carefully constructed to show the audience all the facts they need to understand what’s going on, while making equally sure they’re not aware of this until after the end of the story. Introducing an arbitrary and fantastical plot device, as the film does, arguably renders all that work moot.
But on the other hand, the film seems to be entirely aware of this potential pitfall and works extremely hard to circumvent it: the revelation of the machine and just what it does is painstakingly foreshadowed from the very first second of the movie, and the facts are woven into the narrative of the film with the greatest skill. In its ability to construct a confoundingly clever puzzle-box narrative that only yields up all its secrets on the second or third viewing, The Prestige definitely anticipates Inception, although The Prestige may be even subtler and more devious.
It’s certainly an ambiguous film, too: while Angier, as the film goes on, increasingly comes to resemble the villain of the piece, he is never completely unsympathetic no matter what he does. In the same way, there is always a certain distance with Borden, too – this is someone capable of some very harsh actions. Nolan, as usual, secures a first-rate cast for these roles, although the cast list in general does provide evidence for the ‘superheroes are taking over Hollywood’ argument. It’s true that Hugh Jackman doesn’t have quite the same acting clout as Christian Bale, but he still gives one of his best performances here, while Michael Caine of course provides immaculate support. The female characters, if I’m honest, feel a little thin and underserved, but this is not the fault of Johansson or Rebecca Hall.
The Prestige is a film about identity and reality, and the extent to which these things are artificial and can be manipulated – several cast members play multiple versions of themselves, for instance. It suggests that people are delighted by the pretence of magic, but (rightfully) terrified by the real thing – that illusion is more often than not just a comfort. It’s a complex, dense film, full of deceptively subtle ideas, but one that couples them to a compelling story with some unforgettably shocking images and moments. For many years now, Christopher Nolan has seemed incapable of making a film which is anything less than deeply impressive, and while this is not one of his most famous or financially successful ones, it is still head and shoulders above most other movies. Bowie’s role may be small, but it is crucial to the film’s success – perhaps only something of a footnote to an acting career which was itself only a secondary enterprise, but still a very distinguished one.