The first time I saw ‘The Prestige’ – the first of three viewings on the big screen and umpteen more on DVD – I was struck by the charismatic actor playing Nikola Tesla. There was something familiar about him, but I didn’t give too much thought to the matter. I had other things to think about; ‘The Prestige’ is, after all, a thinking-caps-on kind of movie, one of those incredibly rare films that not only sucker-punches you with a hell of a twist first time round but gets even better on subsequent viewings when you know what’s coming and can marvel at the filmmakers’ skill in conjuring misdirections, concealing lacunae and – more impressive still – leaving enough ambiguity to allow for endless debates as to who was who and who knew what in any given scene.
I wholeheartedly love ‘The Prestige’. It’s easily my favourite movie of the last decade and my favourite Christopher Nolan film – with ‘The Dark Knight’ coming a close second*. It’s also a real bugger to write about (I originally reviewed it a year and half ago as part of the Personal Faves project) since you can’t get into any really interesting discussion without giving away an amazing double- (or possibly even triple-) whammy ending. And if there’s anyone reading these pages who hasn’t seen ‘The Prestige’, I want their first viewing of it to be as jaw-droppingly revelatory as mine.
The basic premise is a friendship that turns to rivalry between two magicians in the Victorian era: the working class Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and slumming-it aristocrat Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) – career bests, performance-wise, from both stars. It’s an adaptation of Christopher Priest’s epistolary novel which veers startlingly into science fiction in a denouement which explicitly homages an H.G. Wells novel.
Although Nolan, co-adapting with his brother Jonathan, wisely stops short of Priest’s OTT finale, a suspension of disbelief is still required for one of the big reveals (although it works brilliantly as a metaphorical device even if you don’t buy it as a plot point) which involves a device created by Tesla. Which is where we came in. And, like I said, I didn’t waste too much time sitting the cinema wondering who was playing Tesla. For me, he was Tesla.
Nikola Tesla was a Serbian inventor, one of the pioneers of electrical engineering. His work in the field of electricity favoured alternating current while his great rival Thomas Edison espoused direct current. History records Edison’s name as synonymous with electricity, but Tesla’s work – while tending on occasion to the more conceptual and eccentric – remains incredibly important. In a similar twist of fate, Tesla undertook some early and groundbreaking research into x-rays; however, it is Wilhelm Röntgen who is credited with discovering the technique (it also netted him the first Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901).
Tesla’s brilliance can be reckoned by the sheer amount of devices, principles and research he pioneered: rotating magnetic fields, the induction motor, voltage multiplication circuits, the arc light, polyphase systems, charged particle beam devices, the electronic logic gate (based on Babbage’s analytical engine), telegeodynamics, bladeless turbines, wireless electrical transfer, radio-controlled weaponry, theories on robotics and his famous (or infamous) Tesla coil.
He was eccentric. He claimed his genius was coterminous with his celibacy (though I guess that would explain Paris Hilton’s mediocrity!); he had a phobia of dirt; he ended his days in a room at the New Yorker Hotel. He kept pigeons in said hotel room. I’m still not sure how that squared with his abhorrence of dirt.
The Tesla of ‘The Prestige’, however, is the Tesla of middle age; the impeccably dressed, elegant, slightly formal, slightly aloof Tesla. The Tesla already starting to exhibit signs of paranoia, principally due to Edison who by this point has graduated from rival to nemesis. When the film ended, I sat through the end credits. “David Bowie!” I exclaimed, turning to my wife. “That was David Bowie playing Tesla!” Bowie’s given good – sometimes inspired – performances in movies before, most notably Nic Roeg’s ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. His turn in ‘The Prestige’ is something else, though. I honestly didn’t recognise him on that first viewing; he had become the character.
‘The Prestige’ is a dark story of blame, grudges, guilt, secrets and sacrifices. One of the magicians, in the final stretch, emerges as slightly more sympathetic than the other. Throughout the rest of the movie, though, it’s left to the supporting characters to supply the humanity: Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson as the women in the feuding conjurors’ lives and, particularly, Michael Caine as the impresario whose association with them goes right back to the beginning of the story.
David Bowie as Nikola Tesla contributes something else entirely. He brings real gravitas to his portrayal of Tesla and, in turn, Tesla lends a crazed credulity to the single most fantastical element of the film. The only actual historical character in the film, he’s also the erratic genius who delivers into Angier’s hands a device that utterly changes what he can accomplish in his stage act. The story goes into such brilliantly bizarre realms at this point that no-one else but Tesla could have served the narrative. Put simply, you couldn’t make up a character like Tesla. When the fiction is this strange you need the kind of truth that is stranger than fiction. Watch ‘The Prestige’. Think about what Tesla’s invention does. Don’t ask yourself why anyone could actually believe that such a thing would work. Ask instead if Nikola Tesla would even believe it wouldn’t.