I recognize I’ve been terrible at updating this blog, as of late. It’s not because I’m not reading, it’s because I haven’t read anything interesting enough I felt it was worth blogging about. Until I finally got around to reading Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, which is about rival magicians. Spoilers to follow, as you can see, there is nothing in my hand…
The Prestige is, in equal parts, about perception and secrets. The story is broken up into five sections, alternating between the illusionists (Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier) and their descendents in the present day (or 1995). Everyone has something or another that they’re trying to hide: Kate Angier is keeping several secrets from Andrew Westley (née Nicholas Borden): why she sent him a copy of Alfred Borden’s book, why she’s overly invested in what he can recall of his childhood, and why she’s called him here, specifically, to her family’s countryside estate. For his part, Andrew’s entire life is something of a secret: why his father, Clive Borden, gave him up for adoption, and why he can’t find any record of a twin brother, when he’s had the overwhelming sensation for over a decade that a twin exists. And since Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier are illusionists, their professional careers (and for one of them, an entire lifetime) are shrouded in deep, complex secrets, all for the sake of concealing the truths behind their greatest tricks. And these secrets are in part what fuels their epic rivalry, one that results in several deaths.
Both illusionists view themselves as the hero of this story, their rival being, in their eyes, the impossible villain responsible for all professional and some personal failures. Each tries to brush off their equal participation in the feud with a casual, ‘I, too, have done things of which I’m not proud,’ as though admitting themselves to not be truly innocent will absolve them of everything. To their credit, both men seem to really hate the feud, and each try to call it off at one point, but those attempts never sync up, and both men are too proud to accept the apologies. Because of each magician’s self-righteous delusion in the matter, it’s difficult to tell who is truly the worst aggressor, as their own pranks are glossed over. But let’s look at the evidence on a larger scale:
If my math holds, though it’s difficult to properly assess all of the vendettas and minor pranks enacted in the several decades of this rivalry, presuming even that all of them truly happened, this is an even tie. Bet you didn’t realize magicians were so intense, did you?
The biggest secrets the two illusionists conceal are the cruxes behind their magic acts, their signature tricks. If an illusionist invents a trick, he gets to name it, and it becomes attributed to him forever (until someone improves it). For Borden, that trick is The New Transported Man, which features him entering a cabinet on one side of the stage and exiting through a separate cabinet on the other side, all in the same instant, and usually before the first cabinet collapses. Angier’s trick, In a Flash, utilizes that newfangled electricity stuff (Downton Abbey, where are you?) and a device made for him by Nikola Tesla, that will transport him across a set distance in a matter of seconds. Both of these tricks contain a vital secret that the men have vowed to conceal until death (Borden refers to this concealment as ‘the Pact’), though Angier susses out Borden’s secret eventually: Alfred Borden is actually a set of identical twins. For who knows how long, they’ve been living the life of one man, a man with a wife, children, and a mistress, all of whom believe he is only one man. Even when one twin dies, the other still manages to conceal it and still perform (minus the New Transported Man). And even though this is the greatest trick of all, you can tell it takes its toll on both Bordens’ sanity. The journal they keep, as one man, manages to shroud even itself in secrecy, and when both twins use it, it comes across as schizophrenic, as though Borden has a severe disorder, arguing with himself using only ‘I’ and ‘me.’ As the years go on, you can tell his/their confusion is mounting: which of them fell in love with wife Sarah? Which fell in love with beautiful assistant Olive? Who can truly claim paternity of the children?
Angier’s secret, on the other hand, is hardly a secret at all: Tesla’s device does precisely what he claims it does, it uses electricity to transport him from one location to another. Of course, in doing so, it kills the first body (‘the prestiges,’ as he refers to them) and creates a duplicate. The duplicate is, for all intents and purposes, Angier, with his same memories and in perfect physical health. Which is why it’s unfortunate when Borden sabotages the performance, and only a partial Angier goes through the device, thus splitting him in two: the first, a man who looks the same and appears to be perfectly healthy, but is inexplicably tired, wheezy, and weighing a good sixty pounds less, and the second is a man neither alive nor dead, who can be invisible when needed, and needs this invisibility to steal money and try to kill his rival, as you do. It’s interesting that Angier becomes what he’s always suspected Borden of being, a set of duplicates. Angier goes to many of Borden’s shows and professes solid admiration of Borden’s skills, and claims to be a magician who follows along with the misdirection like a good audience member is supposed to, not like a magician should. So to uncover the true secret to Borden’s performance, and nearly perfect it (his trick is not as quick as Borden’s, but much flashier, in every sense of the word), is a real triumph for Angier.
Angier doesn’t win this feud, though. He is more or less forced to fake his own death following that disastrous performance, to assume the quiet, non-magical identity he was born to inherit, the Earl of Colderdale. All of his performance money goes to fixing up his estate, and he himself is soon riddled with cancerous tumors that kill him quickly. His poor family has to come to terms with their second ghost dad hanging around and writing in a diary. (Angier, to his credit, has taken an unwitting cue from Borden, and once he gets over the whole infidelity thing, gets to have a very solid relationship with his wife and kids, and they know everything about Tesla’s device and the true nature of the In a Flash trick. I can’t imagine that makes the family vault of identical daddy corpses any easier to swallow – did I mention there’s an entire vault of freaking identical corpses?)
In the interest of thoroughness, and because I was pretty sure Hugh Jackman appeared shirtless (he does), I decided to watch the movie version and compare the storytelling.
The movie takes and begins with a much darker start to the feud. Borden and Angier work together as audience plants in a stage act where Angier’s wife Julia is the beautiful assistant. Borden is insistent on tying a particular knot, but it’s unrehearsed and Julia drowns tragically onstage. It’s a more concrete reason for Angier’s hatred towards Borden than just a series of escalating pranks, as suggested in the books, but how much tragedy is too much? I’m fond of the concept of the feud itself becoming almost its own entity, an obsession, as Olivia points out, “like two lovers who can’t get along together.” But the film paints them as such a violent duo. Borden loses his fingers in a bullet catch that Angier sabotages, and in retaliation, he cripples Angier. And the movie begins with Borden on trial for Angier’s murder. If they are lovers, they are the Bonnie and Clyde of the turn of the century British magic scene.
Borden’s mishap with the bullet catch becomes an interesting minor plot point. Olivia points out that his nigh-one-handedness makes him distinctive, impressive, and he should play it up, since while Borden is the better magician, he lacks stage presence of any sort. What’s truly impressive, though she doesn’t realize it, is that both versions of Borden are missing the same two fingers. To complete the illusion that is Alfred Borden, one twin had to duplicate the injury on the other. In the book, there is a scene somewhere in Borden’s backstory of a terrible cut he gets to his hand while woodworking with his father, which is never again mentioned. It’s neither showing nor telling, because you need to really impress upon the audience the idea that the Borden brothers are so, so committed to this Pact, this singular stage presence they’ve created for themselves, that they have taken this extra gruesome step.
Further overindulgences in gruesomeness in the interest of storytelling: Borden’s wife Sarah, suspecting the truth*, hangs herself. In the book, the Tesla device kills all of the clone Angiers (“the prestiges”), but in the movie, he is forced to get his hands dirty and kill them himself, leading to the final reveal of the abandoned theater littered with rows upon rows of drowned prestiges, in trick water boxes. (Where does he get the budget for these things?) One of the Bordens is hanged (nice parallel there, as his final words to his other self are apologizing for what happened to Sarah, since he is the Borden that loved Olivia, which resulted eventually in Sarah’s suicide), the other shoots the final Angier. The body count is insane for this film, quite literally.
*In the book, Angier, in discussions with his ingénieur Harry Cutter (called John in the movie, who knows why), and a journalist, the idea that Borden is two. Cutter, in both formats, insists it, and in the book, Angier eventually draws that conclusion himself, twice. We never see the reveal from Borden himself, true to form. But I guess you can’t really do that in a movie.
Lastly, they’ve found a way to solve the book’s mystery of what happens to the second Borden, in that one of them is constantly in disguise as Borden’s ingénieur, Fallon. It’s like performing a magic trick in its own right, deciding where you are going to make the audience look, to give that final, glorious reveal.
If there’s one thing to be learned from any of this, it’s something Penn & Teller and that masked dude from a TV special when I was in high school have already taught us: magicians are full of crap. They also might be insane. If there’s a second thing to be learned, it’s not to give Tesla your money. Sure, he’s a genius (and bird enthusiast), but he’s also frequently on the run from creditors, and while he can teleport you short distances, it might leave behind a clone of yourself, and/or kill you with all kinds of gross, cancerous lesions. Just say no to Tesla! If you learn a third thing, it should probably be to hug your kids or not cheat on your wife, but really, all of these are things you should probably already know.