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The Prestige (film)

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The Prestige
Prestige poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Produced by
Screenplay by
Based on The Prestige 
by Christopher Priest
Music by David Julyan
Cinematography Wally Pfister
Edited by Lee Smith
Distributed by
Release dates
  • October 17, 2006 (2006-10-17) (Hollywood)
  • October 20, 2006 (2006-10-20) (North America)
  • November 10, 2006 (2006-11-10) (United Kingdom)
Running time
130 minutes
  • United Kingdom
  • United States[1]
Language English
Budget $40 million[2]
Box office $109.7 million[2]

The Prestige is a 2006 drama film directed by Christopher Nolan, from a screenplay adapted by him and his brother Jonathan Nolan from Christopher Priest's 1995 World Fantasy Award-winning novel of the same name. The story follows Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, rival stage magicians in London at the end of the 19th century. Obsessed with creating the best stage illusion, they engage in competitive one-upmanship with tragic results.

The American-British co-production features Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier, Christian Bale as Alfred Borden, and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. It also stars Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Piper Perabo, Andy Serkis, and Rebecca Hall. The film reunites Nolan with actors Bale and Caine from Batman Begins, and returning cinematographer Wally Pfister, production designer Nathan Crowley, film score composer David Julyan, and editor Lee Smith.

A co-production between Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures, the film was released on October 20, 2006, receiving positive reviews and strong box office results, and received Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. Along with The Illusionist and Scoop, The Prestige was one of three films in 2006 to explore the world of stage magicians.


A magician performs an illusion for a young girl explaining that each trick has three parts; The Pledge, where the audience is presented with an ordinary object; The Turn, where the object is turned into something extraordinary; and The Prestige, where the object is brought back.

Magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is sentenced to death for the murder of rival Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) by drowning him in a water tank during Angier's performance. Both began their careers as shills for "Milton the Magician" with ingénieur John Cutter (Michael Caine) and Angier's wife Julia (Piper Perabo). The pair observe an elderly Chinese magician who is able to make a large fishbowl appear seemingly from nothing. Borden realizes that the man's frailty is in fact the act: he affects a crippled gait on and off stage, so that when he carries the fishbowl between his legs during the act there is no discernable difference. They comment how true magic requires commitment and sacrifice.

Julia drowns in a tank during a water escape performance. Angier blames Borden, who cannot recall if he had tied her hands with a knot she could not release. The two go on to lead separate careers. Borden becomes "The Professor" with the enigmatic Bernard Fallon as his ingénieur while Angier becomes "The Great Danton" with new love Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson) and Cutter. Borden meets and marries Sarah and they have a daughter, Jess, incensing Angier. Angier sabotages Borden's bullet catch, costing Borden two fingers. Borden then ruins Angier's bird cage act, maiming an audience member and damaging Angier's reputation.

Borden soon begins performing an impressive trick called The Transported Man, where he enters one cabinet and exits another across the stage. Cutter insists that Borden is using a double, which Angier refuses to accept. Nevertheless, Angier begins performing The New Transported Man using a double but becomes frustrated at ending up below the stage while his double receives the applause. Angier sends Olivia to discover Borden’s secret, but she instead grows close to Borden. Borden sabotages Angier on stage, crippling his leg, and begins performing The Original Transported Man with Olivia, allowing him to stage it more successfully.

Olivia sends Angier an encrypted diary which supposedly contains the secret to Borden's trick. Angier and Cutter kidnap Fallon to force Borden to give the key to the cypher. Upon learning that the key word is "Tesla", Angier pursues Nikola Tesla to Colorado Springs alone as Cutter abandons him to his obsession, and Angier enlists Tesla to make a copy of the teleportation machine that he believed Borden used. Angier deciphers Borden's diary and discovers it to be a fraud that Borden had Olivia give him and is further angered when the machine fails. However, he and Tesla soon discover that the machine actually works by creating an exact duplicate of whatever is placed inside it. After rival Thomas Edison sends henchmen to torch his lab, Tesla leaves, warning Angier to destroy the machine. Meanwhile, Borden's pursuits drive Sarah to hang herself: there are hints that Borden's dual identity has become known to Sarah—she asked to meet Olivia to tell her "the truth".

Angier returns to London, electrifying audiences with "The Real Transported Man", vanishing within the machine and reappearing in the back of the hall. In reality, Angier falls through a trap door and plunges into a water cell tank, drowning, while his duplicate reappears; the tanks are disposed of by blind stage hands every night. Borden witnesses Angier drown while slipping backstage to discover his secret but is caught and convicted of murder of Angier in the tank. In prison, Borden is visited by the agent of a Lord Caldlow, who offers to care for Jess in exchange for Borden's secrets. Borden is given Angier's diary and finds his conviction has been orchestrated by Angier, recognizing Lord Caldlow as Angier when he comes to collect the secret which Borden has written down. Instead, Angier no longer needs the secrets, ripping up the papers and leaving with Jess. Borden is hanged, after encouraging Fallon to live for them both. Cutter learns that Caldlow has bought all of Angier's tricks, including the machine, and visits Caldlow to plead for its destruction. He recognizes Angier, who admitted earlier to Borden he has always been Lord Caldlow (he had used the name Robert Angier to spare his family the embarrassment of his theatrical career). Cutter is disgusted with Angier for letting Borden hang and taking Borden's daughter.

Cutter accompanies Angier as he stores the machine beneath the theater with the rest of the "prestige materials." On his way out, Cutter recognises and nods to Fallon as he enters. Angier is shot, and sees his killer is missing two fingers and has Borden's face. He then realizes that "Borden" was actually identical twins who shared their lives on stage and off. Just as they took turns being the man in the box and the prestige, they took turns being Borden and (by wearing makeup) Fallon. When one twin lost his fingers because of Angier, the other had his brother remove his own so they could continue to look alike in order to keep up the illusion there was only one Borden. One twin (the one alive) loved Sarah and was the girl's father, while the other twin (the one hanged) loved Olivia. So they each had half of a full life, which was enough for them but not for the women they loved. He berates Angier for not knowing what true sacrifice for a good trick means, and that it takes nothing to steal someone else's work. Angier explains that it took courage to enter the machine every night not knowing if he'd be the man in the box or the one in The Prestige. Borden leaves him to die as a fire consumes the building, casting light on rows of tanks, each containing a drowned Angier.

Cutter, having betrayed Angier, repeats the trick of vanishing the bird for the delight of Jess. Borden then appears to reclaim his daughter.


  • Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier/The Great Danton/Lord Caldlow, an aristocratic magician. After reading the script, Jackman expressed interest in playing the part. Christopher Nolan discovered Jackman was interested in the script, and after meeting him, saw that Jackman possessed the qualities of stage showmanship that Nolan was looking for in the role of Angier. Nolan explained that Angier had "a wonderful understanding of the interaction between a performer and a live audience", a quality he believed that Jackman had. Nolan said that "[Jackman] has the great depth as an actor that hasn't really been explored. People haven't had the chance to really see what he can do as an actor, and this is a character that would let him do that."[3] Jackman based his portrayal of Angier on 1950s-era American magician Channing Pollock.[4] Jackman also portrays Gerald Root, an alcoholic double used for Angier's New Transported Man.
  • Christian Bale as Alfred Borden/The Professor/Bernard Fallon, a working-class magician. Christian Bale expressed interest in playing the part, and was cast after Jackman. Although Nolan had previously cast Bale as Batman in Batman Begins, he did not consider Bale for the part of Borden until Bale contacted him about the script. Nolan said that Bale was "exactly right" for the part of Borden, and that it was "unthinkable" for anyone else to play the part.[3] Nolan described Bale as "terrific to work with", who "takes what he does very, very seriously".[5] Nolan suggested that the actors should not read the book, but Bale ignored his advice.[6]
  • Michael Caine as John Cutter, the stage engineer (ingenieur) who works with Angier and Borden. Caine had previously collaborated with Nolan and Bale in Batman Begins. Nolan said that even though it felt like the character of Cutter was written for Caine, it was not. Nolan noted that the character "was written before I'd ever met him".[3] Caine describes Cutter as "a teacher, a father and a guide to Angier". Caine, in trying to create Cutter's nuanced portrait, altered his voice and posture. Nolan later said that "Michael Caine’s character really becomes something of the heart of the film. He has a wonderful warmth and emotion to him that draws you into the story and allows you to have a point of view on these characters without judging them too harshly."[7]
  • Piper Perabo as Julia McCullough, Milton the Magician's assistant and Angier's wife.
  • Rebecca Hall as Sarah Borden, Borden's wife. Hall had to relocate from North London to Los Angeles in order to shoot the film, though the film itself takes place in London. Hall said that she "was starstruck just to be involved in [the film]".
  • Scarlett Johansson as Olivia Wenscombe, Angier's assistant and lover. Nolan said that he was "very keen" for Johansson to play the role, and when he met with her to discuss it, "she just loved the character".[3] Johansson praised Nolan's directing methods, saying that she "loved working with [him]"; he was "incredibly focused and driven and involved, and really involved in the performance in every aspect."[8]
  • David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, the real-life inventor who creates a teleportation device for Angier. For the role of Nikola Tesla, Nolan wanted someone who was not necessarily a film star, but was "extraordinarily charismatic". Nolan said that "David Bowie was really the only guy I had in mind to play Tesla because his function in the story is a small but very important role".[3] Nolan contacted Bowie, who initially turned down the part. A lifelong fan, Nolan flew out to New York to pitch the role to Bowie in person, telling him no one else could possibly play the part;[9] Bowie accepted after a few minutes.[3]
  • Andy Serkis as Mr. Alley, Tesla's assistant. Serkis said that he played his character with the belief that he was "once a corporation man who got excited by this maverick, Tesla, so jumped ship and went with the maverick". Serkis described his character as a "gatekeeper", a "conman", and "a mirror image of Michael Caine’s character". Serkis, a big fan of Bowie, said that he was enjoyable to work with, describing him as "very unassuming, very down to earth... very at ease with himself and funny."[10]
  • Ricky Jay as "Milton the Magician", an older magician Borden and Angier worked for at the beginning of the story. Jay and Michael Weber trained Jackman and Bale for their roles with brief instruction in various stage illusions. The magicians gave the actors limited information, allowing them to know enough to pull off a scene.[6]
  • Roger Rees as Owens, a solicitor working for Angier/Lord Caldlow.
  • W. Morgan Sheppard as Merrit, a theater owner Angier initially plays for.
  • Daniel Davis as the judge presiding over Borden's trial.


Julian Jarrold's and Sam Mendes' producer approached Christopher Priest for an adaptation of his novel The Prestige. Priest was impressed with Nolan's films Following and Memento,[11] and subsequently, producer Valerie Dean brought the book to Nolan's attention.[12] In October 2000, Nolan traveled to the United Kingdom to publicize Memento, as Newmarket Films was having difficulty finding a United States distributor. While in London, Nolan read Priest's book and shared the story with his brother while walking around in Highgate (a location later featured in the scene where Angier ransoms Borden's ingénieur in Highgate Cemetery). The development process for The Prestige began as a reversal of their earlier collaboration: Jonathan Nolan had pitched his initial story for Memento to his brother during a road trip.[13]

A year later, the option on the book became available and was purchased by Aaron Ryder of Newmarket Films.[12][13] In late 2001, Nolan became busy with the post-production of Insomnia, and asked his brother Jonathan to help work on the script.[13] The writing process was a long collaboration between the Nolan brothers, occurring intermittently over a period of five years.[14] In the script, the Nolans emphasized the magic of the story through the dramatic narrative, playing down the visual depiction of stage magic. The three-act screenplay was deliberately structured around the three elements of the film's illusion: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. "It took a long time to figure out how to achieve cinematic versions of the very literary devices that drive the intrigue of the story," Christopher Nolan told Variety: "The shifting points of view, the idea of journals within journals and stories within stories. Finding the cinematic equivalents of those literary devices was very complex."[15] Although the film is thematically faithful to the novel, two major changes were made to the plot structure during the adaptation process: the novel's spiritualism subplot was removed, and the modern-day frame story was replaced with Borden's wait for the gallows.[12] Priest approved of the adaptation, describing it as "an extraordinary and brilliant script, a fascinating adaptation of my novel."[12]

The historic Tower Theatre in Los Angeles was used as the location for the Pantages Theatre in London[16]

In early 2003, Nolan planned to direct the film before the production of Batman Begins accelerated.[6][17] Following the release of Batman Begins, Nolan started up the project again, negotiating with Bale and Jackman in October 2005.[18] While the screenplay was still being written, production designer Nathan Crowley began the set design process in Nolan's garage, employing a "visual script" consisting of scale models, images, drawings, and notes. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan finished the final shooting draft on January 13, 2006, and began production three days later on January 16. Filming ended on April 9.[19]

Crowley and his crew searched Los Angeles for almost seventy locations that resembled fin de siècle London.[16] Jonathan Nolan visited Colorado Springs to research Nikola Tesla and based the electric bulb scene on actual experiments conducted by Tesla.[13] Nathan Crowley helped design the scene for Tesla's invention; It was shot in the parking lot of the Mount Wilson Observatory.[16] Influenced by a "Victorian modernist aesthetic," Crowley chose four locations in the Broadway theater district in downtown Los Angeles for the film's stage magic performances: the Los Angeles Theatre, the Palace Theatre, the Los Angeles Belasco, and the Tower Theatre.[20] Crowley also turned a portion of the Universal back lot into Victorian London.[21]

Osgood Castle in Colorado was used as a location.[22]

Nolan built only one set for the film, an "under-the-stage section that houses the machinery that makes the larger illusions work,"[23] preferring to simply dress various Los Angeles locations and sound stages to stand in for Colorado and Victorian England.[24] In contrast to most period pieces, Nolan kept up the quick pace of production by shooting with handheld cameras,[24] and refrained from using artificial lighting in some scenes, relying instead on natural light on location.[6] Costume designer Joan Bergin chose attractive, modern Victorian fashions for Scarlett Johansson; cinematographer Wally Pfister captured the mood with soft earth tones as white and black colors provided background contrasts, bringing actors' faces to the foreground.[25]

Editing, scoring and mixing finished on September 22, 2006.[19]


The rivalry between Borden and Angier dominates the film. Obsession, secrecy, and sacrifice fuel the battle, as both magicians contribute their fair share to a deadly duel of one-upmanship, with disastrous results. Angier's obsession with beating Borden costs him a great deal of money and Cutter's friendship, while providing him with a collection of his own suicide victims; Borden's obsession with maintaining the secrecy of his twin leads Sarah to question their relationship eventually resulting in her suicide when she suspects the truth. Angier and one of the twins both lose Olivia's love because of their inhumanity. Finally, Borden is hanged and the last copy of Angier shot. Their struggle is also expressed through class warfare: Borden as The Professor, a working-class magician who gets his hands dirty, versus Angier as The Great Danton, a classy, elitist showman whose accent makes him appear American.[26] Film critic Matt Brunson claimed that a complex theme of duality is exemplified by Angier and Borden, that the film chooses not to depict either magician as good or evil.[27]

Angier's theft of Borden's teleportation illusion in the film echoes many real-world examples of stolen tricks among magicians. Outside the film, similar rivalries include magicians John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Kellar's dispute over a levitation illusion.[28] Gary Westfahl of Locus Online also notes a "new proclivity for mayhem" in the film over the novel, citing the murder/suicide disposition of Angier's duplicates and intensified violent acts of revenge and counter-revenge. This "relates to a more general alteration in the events and tone of the film" rather than significantly changing the underlying themes.[29]

Nor is this cutthroat competition limited to prestidigitation: engineering "wizards" Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison engaged in a rivalry over electrical current, which appears in the film in parallel to Borden and Angier's competition for magical supremacy.[30][31] In the book, Tesla and Edison serve as foils for Borden and Angier, respectively.[32]

Den Shewman of Creative Screenwriting says the film asks how far one would go to devote oneself to an art. The character of Chung Ling Soo, according to Shewman, is a metaphor for this theme.[12] Film critic Alex Manugian refers to this theme as the "meaning of commitment."[33] For example, Soo's pretense of being slow and feeble misdirects his audience from noticing the physical strength required to perform the goldfish bowl trick, but the cost of maintaining this illusion is the sacrifice of individuality: Soo's true appearance and freedom to act naturally are consciously suppressed in his ceaseless dedication to the art of magic.

Nicolas Rapold of Film Comment addresses the points raised by Shewman and Manugian in terms of the film's "refracted take on Romanticism":

Angier's technological solution—which suggests art as sacrifice, a phoenix-like death of the self—and Borden's more meat-and-potatoes form of stagecraft embody the divide between the artist and the social being.[34]

For Manugian the central theme is "obsession," but he also notes the supporting themes of the "nature of deceit" and "science as magic." Manugian criticizes the Nolans for trying to "ram too many themes into the story."[33]


Touchstone Pictures opted to move the release date up a week, from the original October 27, to October 20, 2006.[35] The film earned $14.8 million on opening weekend in the United States, debuting at #1. It grossed $109 million, including $53 million from the United States.[2] The film received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Nathan Crowley and Julie Ochipinti) and the Academy Award for Best Cinematography Wally Pfister, [36] as well as a nomination for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form in 2007.[37] Along with The Illusionist and Scoop (also starring Jackman and Johansson), The Prestige was one of three films in 2006 to explore the world of stage magicians.

Critical response[edit]

The Prestige received generally favorable reviews from film critics.[38] Rotten Tomatoes reported that 76% of critics gave the film positive reviews, with an average score of 7.1/10, based upon a sample of 179 reviews.[39] At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received an average score of 66, based on 36 reviews.[38] On IMDB the movie got an 8.5/10, which is the 54th highest movie on the website. Claudia Puig of USA Today described the film as "one of the most innovative, twisting, turning art films of the past decade."[40] Drew McWeeny gave the film a glowing review, saying it demands repeat viewing,[41] with Peter Travers of Rolling Stone agreeing.[42] Richard Roeper and guest critic A.O. Scott gave the film a "two thumbs up" rating.[43][44] Todd Gilchrist of IGN applauded the performances of Bale and Jackman whilst praising Nolan for making "this complex story as easily understandable and effective as he made the outwardly straightforward comic book adaptation (Batman Begins) dense and sophisticated... any truly great performance is almost as much showmanship as it is actual talent, and Nolan possesses both in spades."[45] and Village Voice film critic Tom Charity listed it amongst his best films of 2006.[46] Philip French of The Observer recommended the film, comparing the rivalry between the two main characters to that of Mozart and Salieri in the highly acclaimed Amadeus.[47]

On the other hand, Dennis Harvey of Variety criticized the film as gimmicky, though he felt the cast did well in underwritten roles.[48] Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter felt that characters "...are little more than sketches. Remove their obsessions, and the two magicians have little personality."[49] Nonetheless, the two reviewers praised David Bowie as Tesla, as well as the production values and cinematography. On a simpler note, Emanuel Levy has said: "Whether viewers perceive The Prestige as intricately complex or just unnecessarily complicated would depend to a large degree on their willingness to suspend disbelief for two hours." He gave the film a B grade.[50]

Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, describing the revelation at the end a "fundamental flaw" and a "cheat." He wrote, "The pledge of Nolan's The Prestige is that the film, having been metaphorically sawed in two, will be restored; it fails when it cheats, as, for example, if the whole woman produced on the stage were not the same one so unfortunately cut in two."[51] R.J. Carter of The Trades felt, "I love a good science fiction story; just tell me in advance." He gave the film a B-.[52] Christopher Priest, who wrote the novel the film is based on, saw it three times as of January 5, 2007, and his reaction was "'Well, holy shit.' I was thinking, 'God, I like that,' and 'Oh, I wish I'd thought of that.'"[53]

In 2009, The A.V. Club included The Prestige in their best films of the decade list.[54] The film was included in American Cinematographer's "Best-Shot Film of 1998-2008" list, ranking at 37. More than 17,000 people around the world participated in the final vote.[55]


The Prestige: Original Score
Soundtrack album by David Julyan
Released October 17, 2006
Recorded 2006
Genre Classical
Length 48:13
Producer Christopher Nolan
Hans Zimmer
David Julyan chronology
The Descent
The Prestige

English musician and film score composer David Julyan penned the music for The Prestige. Julyan had previously collaborated with director Christopher Nolan on Following, Memento and Insomnia. Like the film, the soundtrack was divided into three sections: the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige.[56]

Track listing[edit]

All music composed by David Julyan.

No. Title Length
1. "Are You Watching Closely?"   1:51
2. "Colorado Springs"   4:15
3. "The Light Field"   1:50
4. "Borden Meets Sarah"   2:11
5. "Adagio for Julia"   2:03
6. "A New Trick"   4:29
7. "The Journal"   2:55
8. "The Transported Man"   2:36
9. "No, Not Today"   2:31
10. "Caught"   1:39
11. "Cutter Returns"   2:13
12. "The Real Transported Man"   2:28
13. "Man's Reach Exceeds His Imagination"   2:08
14. "Goodbye to Jess"   2:53
15. "Sacrifice"   5:15
16. "The Price of a Good Trick"   5:05
17. "The Prestige"   1:40

Some critics were disappointed with the score, acknowledging that while it worked within the context of the film, it was not enjoyable by itself.[57][58] Jonathan Jarry of SoundtrackNet described the score as "merely functional," establishing the atmosphere of dread but never taking over. Although the reviewer was interested with the score's notion, Jarry found the execution was "extremely disappointing."[57]

Christopher Coleman of Tracksounds felt that though it was "...a perfectly fitting score," it was completely overwhelmed by the film, and totally unnoticed at times.[58] Christian Clemmensen of Filmtracks recommended the soundtrack for those who enjoyed Julyan's work on the film, and noted that it was not for those who expected "any semblance of intellect or enchantment in the score to match the story of the film." Clemmensen called the score lifeless, "constructed on a bed of simplistic string chords and dull electronic soundscapes."[59]

The song "Analyse" by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke is played over the credits.[60]

Home media[edit]

The Region 1 disc is by Buena Vista Home Entertainment, and was released on February 20, 2007, and is available on DVD and BD formats.[61] The Warner Bros. Region 2 DVD was released on March 12, 2007.[62] It is also available in both BD and regionless HD DVD in Europe (before HD DVD was cancelled). Special features are minimal, with the documentary Director's Notebook: The Prestige – Five Making-of Featurettes, running roughly twenty minutes combined, an art gallery and the trailer. Nolan did not contribute to a commentary as he felt the film primarily relied on an audience's reaction and did not want to remove the mystery from the story.[63]


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