Sandwiched between his first two Batman blockbusters, Christopher Nolan added another string to his bow with 2006’s The Prestige, an art house film with an A-list cast. Not only a phenomenal adaptation of Christopher Priest’s dizzying novel about duelling magicians, it achieves the remarkable feat of improving upon the source material. Priest himself declared, ‘Holy shit. I was thinking, “Oh, I wish I'd thought of that.”’
If you haven’t seen the film yet, then don’t read any further. Buy it from Amazon (£4.28). Watch it. Then watch it again. And again. Chances are that you’ll then scour the web for illumination on The Prestige’s illusion.
For those of you who have, the film’s twists are staggering, with the crescendo a worthy rival to Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995). When Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) reveals that he is actually two identical twins, the finale delicately explains the essence of his and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman)’s raison d’être not just on stage, but in life.
Hinging on the benign voice of Michael Caine’s stage engineer Cutter, the end monologue bedazzles its audience. ‘Now you're looking for the secret,’ begins his voiceover as Borden examines the abandoned building filled with tanks and now ablaze, with Angier’s corpse strewn across the floor. Gracefully, the image studious Borden dissolves into the mountains of Colorado Springs, where the multitude of those top hats lay in the chilly winter.
‘But you won't find it because of course, you're not really looking,’ he continues cryptically. Again the dissolving effect returns, back to the building and the neatly arranged tanks, the fire beginning to bellow. And there, in one container, is one of Angier’s cloned stiffs; a bubble of oxygen floating to the surface.
‘You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.’
Cut to black. Finis. Cue Thom Yorke’s Analyse (how appropriate) and general bafflement in the auditorium. Was there something hidden? Have I been tricked? Is Angier still alive? I really need to see that again.
Five years on from its release, it is perhaps too raw to place the quote in cinema’s elitist pantheon, but for film scholars it is 31 words of complex ambiguity. When Borden reunites with his daughter, the loose ends are seemingly tied up. Nolan however embraces uncertainty like a comfort blanket and can’t resist stamping his motif on the ending.
In less than 30 seconds he creates a perception illusion which will remain open for debate as long as he and his dexterous scriptwriter brother Jonathan remain mum. For a filmmaker so humble when in the public eye, it’s unkind to decide that the enigmatic epilogue is vanity at his behest because it complements the film’s thoughtful tone perfectly. After all, the tagline for The Prestige and its opening line is, ‘Are you watching closely?’
Whereas most film lines are memorable for their machine-gun delivery, coolness, or solely due to the actor’s dulcet tones (ie. any Clint Eastwood quote), The Prestige’s signature is made memorable for the setting. Its author isn’t on screen, which intensifies its strength as an unforgettable statement courtesy of the craft that it is supplemented by.
There’s also the urge to cast doubt on a happy ending; another recurring theme in Nolan’s films. His pictures, irrespective of their tone, contain a haunting quality and those 31 words apply that to The Prestige, despite its ostensibly buoyant ending for the wronged Borden. That brief glance of suspicion from Bale transfers to the viewer, and the significance of Cutter’s words are upgraded to defining. And worthy of dissection.
The mini-speech even compelled some to feel cheated. Roger Ebert, possibly the most renowned film critic in the industry, was just one of them. It may not chime with the popcorn crowd who might find it overly pretentious, but that’s because they aren’t looking. Whereas we are.