In Christopher Nolan’s movies men are always losing their minds: to revenge and an old phobia in Batman Begins; to a clinical condition in Insomnia; to the vagaries of a crippled short-term memory in Memento. The hero of this last film can drive a car and kill people, remember how his dead wife looked and what she said; but he doesn’t know where he is at any given moment, or why he is there, or what he said a few minutes before. ‘What am I doing?’ he murmurs in a voice-over as he races between buildings. ‘Why am I chasing this man? Or is he chasing me? He’s chasing me.’ He gets to this conclusion because the man is shooting at him.
The minds don’t stay lost, but finding them is hard, and this difficulty is often reflected in a tricky narrative line, passed on to the viewer as a struggle to find the story. It is a tribute to Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who often works with him and who wrote the story on which Memento is based, that this trickiness never feels fancy or confused; just intricate and appropriate, an intimate part of whatever is going on.
All of these elements are present in Nolan’s new film The Prestige – twice. The lives of two men are swallowed up in rivalry; both are obsessively devoted to the art of deceit; and they lose not only their minds but their bodies and their selves to the business of their obsession. The narrative line is as tricky as you could wish, with multiple flashbacks and continuously shifting timeframes. The film is a fine example of collaboration between media, since almost everything that is clever and interesting in it comes from a very good novel of the same title by Christopher Priest, but the two works feel completely different. The novel stretches over several lifetimes, from the 1860s to the 1990s, and goes to some lengths to develop both its period flavour and the strangeness of the continuity of old hatreds. ‘What could it possibly matter,’ a character thinks, ‘that two stage magicians were constantly at each other’s throats? Whatever spite, hatred or envy that rankled between those two old men surely could not concern distant descendants.’ Ah, but it could, and Priest is strong on the Gothic effect, complete with crypt and cobwebs.
The film stays with the two men when their rivalry is in its prime, and although it occasionally gets lost among its impeccable olde London costumes and sets – as if it were looking for a slot between Young Sherlock Holmes and My Fair Lady – it has an edge which is entirely contemporary in two senses. It belongs to the actual life of the men in question, not their legacy, and it speaks to concerns of the 21st century, where science looks more like magic every day.
What sparks the rivalry? Ostensibly it is all about one magician’s blunt invasion of the act of another. Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale, wrecks a performance by Robert Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, with dire consequences: in the novel an abortion for Angier’s wife, in the movie the wife’s death. But this plausible bit of plotting very soon comes to look like an excuse. The two men are slugging it out in what they think of as something like the world championship of deception, although their gifts and their attitudes to magic are rather different.
Borden can spot a trick a mile off, and sees through Angier every time, until Angier, with the help of Nikola Tesla, alias David Bowie, discovers a trick that isn’t a trick at all but a bit of new weird science. This is no longer magic according to Borden – a stage magician for him is, in the words of the novel, ‘not a sorcerer at all, but an actor who plays the part of a sorcerer’ – but Angier doesn’t care, because he is not interested in magic as avowed illusion, only in finding an act that Borden can’t understand. I can’t add much more about the development of the story without revealing the startling multiple turns of the later part of the film, but it won’t hurt to say that both men work on a teleporting act, which beams them, in the idiom of a modern legend, instantly and invisibly from one place to another. The book defines the difference between the acts beautifully. ‘The central rule of magic,’ Borden says, is that ‘what is seen is not what is actually being done.’ The audience knows it is being deceived, that no miracle is taking place, but it doesn’t know how it is that nature and reality seem to be subverted. This is exactly how Borden works, and his trick is his secret. The point is the secrecy and the fraud, and without these elements Borden wouldn’t be interested in magic. Angier by contrast actually does what was thought impossible – and is, in fact, impossible outside of this movie. ‘What the audience sees,’ he writes in the journal he keeps in the novel, ‘is actually what happened! But I cannot allow this ever to be known, for science in this case has replaced magic.’
Once these games, these distinctions and collapses of distinctions, appear in a movie, a curious, indirect meditation on the cinema starts up, where Angier’s practice represents a documentary passing itself off as fiction, and Borden’s art, unmistakably a fiction, specialises in creating a bewildering documentary effect. It’s hard to think of movie analogues for Angier’s work, however easy it is to formulate the possibility – perhaps such movies wouldn’t be movies for the same reason that magic isn’t magic. But almost every film that ever haunted us or got into our sleep corresponds closely to what Borden is up to.
Speaking to Truffaut, Hitchcock said: ‘It’s impossible to put an illusionist on the screen, because the public knows instinctively, through the tricks they have seen in films, how the director went about it. They will say: “Oh well, he stopped the reel and then took her out of the box!”’ The audience will know there is no surprising science and no baffling magic; just technology. At first sight, Nolan appears to be contradicting Hitchcock. Here are two illusionists on the screen, again and again. We even go backstage repeatedly, so the magic disappears even within the film, without a change of reel or its up-to-date equivalent in Photoshop. But of course Nolan is not filming illusions as illusions; he is filming them as work, with the end product – the prestige, as both novel and movie define the term of art – simply as what comes at the end of the line. The ‘central rule’ of movies is slightly different from the central rule of magic: what is seen is what is actually being done, but we don’t know what else is being done, just off screen or behind appearances. The point is well made elsewhere in Hitchcock’s conversations with Truffaut. ‘Did you like the scene with the glass of milk?’ Hitchcock asks, thinking of a famous moment in Suspicion where Cary Grant may or may not have poisoned Joan Fontaine’s evening drink. ‘I put a light in the milk.’ Truffaut responds: ‘You mean a spotlight on it?’ Hitchcock says: ‘No, I put a light right inside the glass because I wanted it to be luminous.’ He wanted us to believe, for an absurd moment, that we could tell by looking whether a glass of milk was poisoned. In magic we know we are being cheated. In movies we don’t know how far our eyes (and ears) will take us. We only know, in good movies, that it’s not far enough.
Near the beginning of The Prestige, in a scene that doesn’t appear in the novel, a small boy is upset by a magic act that involves a disappearing canary. His aunt tries to reassure him: it’s a trick, the canary will come back. Sure enough a moment later a canary is fluttering on the magician’s finger. The boy is pleased to see the canary, but unconsoled. ‘Where’s his brother?’ he asks. The question has nifty ramifications throughout the whole movie, but we don’t need to pursue them here. The magician is disconcerted. Can the boy somehow have perceived the truth? That the first canary is dead, crushed beneath the false floor of the cage, that the second canary is indeed a second one. Perhaps the boy is a Borden in potentia, a magician’s magician to be. Or is he, more simply, one step ahead of Freud? Does he know, as perhaps all children do, that the most famous vanishing trick of all doesn’t really work as a game or a comfort, because fort is fort and da is da, and the two realms can’t be brought together? Even if the bird doesn’t die, even if your mother always comes back, the disappearance is real and can’t be undone. We see the vanishing, with or without a spotlight, and the creature who returns is never quite the same as the one who left.