Film 2018: The Prestige

I don’t usually tend to watch films based on books I know, partly because the kind of books I like very rarely get adapted to film, but more often because I find it very hard to sink into the film and enjoy it for itself because a distinct part of me is continually assessing the mechanics of the adaptation: what’s left out, what’s been compressed, how they handled that scene, aaahh, how they dealt with that bit: no, didn’t like that at all.

As you’ll already be aware, I’ve been a long-term follower of Christopher Priest’s work (curious irony: an Amazon pre-order for his newest novel was in my in-box when I logged on today, before watching this film again) and it took me a long time to test what everyone, including Priest himself, had said, namely that this was good, indeed very good.

Re-watching it this morning, after a long break, I found myself oblivious to how the film is structured to adapt the novel, and more concerned to read how many clues there are to the essential mysteries of the film, which of course I knew from knowing the book.

What The Prestige is about is the rivalry between two late-Nineteenth Century stage magicians, Robert Angier (The Great Danton) (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (The Professor – Le Professeur de la Magie in the novel) (Christian Bale). It focuses on their enmity: Borden is responsible for Angier’s wife’s death on stage, is the better magician to Angier’s superior stagemanship, both try to sabotage each other’s acts, spy on each other, etc. Primarily it centres on one trick, The Transported Man, by which each magician disappears in one place and reappears in another almost instantly.

Borden invents it, Angier tries to duplicate it. Each has their own method but it’s not enough to have their own successful act, each has to know the other’s secret.

Director Christopher Nolan, working with a script adapted by his brother Jonathan, takes an achronological approach to the story, working within a frame-story that deals with the aftermath, in which the meat of events is presented as at least two series of flashbacks, and these are not themselves wholly chronological. We begin with a shot of a field full of identical black top hats, which is crucial to one strand of the plot but whose significance is not understood until much later.

Then we find Borden on trial for the murder of Angier, who, as part of the trick, falls through a trapdoor into a locked cabinet of water, where he drowns.

Then we watch John Cutter, Angier’s ingenieur or stage engineer (a lovely, warm performance by Michael Caine) demonstrate a fairly basic magic trick to a little girl, setting up the concept of the three parts of a magic trick: the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige, a three-act structure that the Nolans apply to the screenplay.

I’m undecided as to how much of the film’s secrets or revelations to discuss here. I mean, the novel’s been available since 1995 and the film appeared in 2006, so it’s not like I’m risking significant spoilers, but on the other hand the film does tie itself into quite complex knots to preserve its mysteries to very nearly the end, and I feel under a certain obligation to give in to its obsession. For spoilers, read this.

So, knowing in advance what revelations await, how does the film work? Quite simply, superbly. The film incarnates the period, and Bale and Jackman in their contrasting roles are both outstanding and utterly convincing. The supporting cast are also excellent: Rebecca Hall in the rather understated role of Borden’s wife, Sarah and Scarlett Johansen in the more obvious part of Olivia, mistress and assistant too both Angier and Borden are equally natural, and their duality is, for those aware of the true situation, a vital key to one of the revelations.

Indeed, duality (as opposed to Priestian Unreality) is a key element in The Prestige. Though the film avoids those parts of the book where the same events are described in differing ways according to which magician is seeing them, its objective approach is wrapped up in duplicated experiences on each side. To take one blatant example, at different times each magician obtains possession of the other’s diary, pores over it extensively, and learns that each diary is a plant, ending in a direct address to its intended reader, exposing itself to be a complex manipulation.

Once you begin to understand the extent to which duality is a factor in the presentation of the story, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see into the realities that Chris Nolan wants to withhold until the end. In fact, with foreknowledge, it can be seen that the film overflows with minor clues.

I’ve mentioned the film’s primary cast, though Rebecca Hall is actually a supporting actress, and mention must certainly be made of David Bowie’s mildly-extended cameo as the science/electric pioneer, Nikolai Tesla (with Andy Sirkis, blessedly motion-capture free, as his assistant). Bowie, in a neatly underplayed performance, makes Tesla into a strange, near-alien presence, lending a psychological credence to his producing, out of nowhere, the only genuinely magical element of the entire film, even as it is paraded as not Magic but Science.

This is the other mystery that Nolan wants to withhold until the very end. We’ve seen it in action at the outset, or rather one esoteric aspect of it, and it spurs the film into action as the explanation for why Alfred Borden is on trial, is convicted, is hanged. Put the field of top hats together with the man in the locked cage of water and you can understand the magic without needing the last, final, horrific shot to render explicit what the film has long since given away. All things are duplicated.

Actually, the end is the only disappointing thing about the film. Borden, who has died for killing Angier when he hasn’t killed him, kills Angier (work that one out) but not before the two have a final, cryptic conversation that is far too long and slows the film to a crawl just when it needs to stay taut.

I do have one further complaint about the film, or rather my DVD copy of it, which has the soundtrack mixed so low that, given that so much of it is conducted in whispers, or lowered voices, it was impossible to make out what was being said on many occasions, even with the laptop volume cranked up to 100.

But this is still a great film, and despite its differing intentions, it’s a worthy companion to Christopher Priest’s novel. Different but equal: no better thing can be said about an adaptation.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Separation

I have long been ambivalent about The Separation, which was first published in 2002. I have never entirely understood its ending, which has never seemed like a true ending, but rather a stopping, leaving more than just the usual mysteries that are a hallmark of Christopher Priest’s work, that are the necessary, and indeed right, concomitance of a writer whose work is founded so deeply in Unreality.
Like almost all of Priest’s fiction, The Separation concerns itself with at least two different versions of events, the opposition of which and the lingering uncertainty as to which, if either, is Real and which is Divergent. Usually, there is a dominant version, corresponding to either everyday ‘reality’ or else a near future version of the same that is discernible in the same terms. Usually, the story starts in the dominant reality.
That seems to be the case in The Separation, which opens with popular historian writer Stuart Goddard attending an unsuccessful signing session in a Buxton bookshop on a rainy afternoon. Goddard writes historical accounts of recent history based almost entirely of the collected oral testimony of participants. This session is attended by a woman who is responding to his appeal for information about a Second World War RAF Flight Lieutenant, J L Sawyer, who appears briefly in Churchill’s memoirs, and about whom there seems to be a mystery, or rather an obscurity.
The woman presents him with an envelope containing copies of her late father’s memoirs: he may be the relevant Sawyer. Gratton, already busy on other things, takes the manuscript back home, though he doesn’t read it immediately.
So far, so (beguilingly) mundane. But there are already a couple of off-key references: a Sino-American War, an address in Antananarivo, Republic of Masada, massive economic stagnation in an even more paranoid, near-Third World United States. Priest does not waste much time in showing his hand: Gratton was born on 10 May 1941, and his first success was a book about that very day, about what people were doing on the day the Second World War ended.
It’s a dramatic change of direction for Priest, to begin a story set indisputably in what his readership will define as Unreality. As things develop, the story takes on a structure similar to that of The Prestige: two, relatively short sections are set contemporarily in 1999, centred upon Gratton, but each serves to introduced longer sections set in the War itself, dealing with the events of that time in two completely incompatible worlds: Gratton’s War of 1939-41 that is confined to Europe and ends in a negotiated peace and the deposal of both Hitler and Churchill, and the 1939-45 World War with which we are familiar.
Is this latter reality Real? It’s tempting to think so, but this time Priest has thoroughly undermined the reality of either history. There are contradictions and almost parallels everywhere, not just between the separate accounts but within them, and both versions contain one common incident that, in itself, signals that history is doubling upon itself and dividing in each version.
The book centres upon J L Sawyer, Flight Lieutenant and Registered Conscientious Objector in one person. Or rather two persons, for Sawyer is identical twins (another echo of The Prestige), Joe and Jack, each given confusingly converging names and identical initials.
For all that they are twins, the brothers are very different, as evidenced by their War service: Jack, usually known as JL, is the RAF Bomber pilot, Joe the CO and Red Cross Ambulance Driver. At first, they’re united as sportsmen, 1936 Olympic Bronze medallists in the coxless pairs, but from that point their differences drive them very much apart.
JL’s memories come first. They begin with his plane being shot down on May 10, 1941, in an attack on Hamburg: JL is badly injured in his left leg and head, the rest of his crew is killed except for navigator Sam Levy. JL gets the plane as far back to England as he can before it crashes: he and Levy are later rescued from a dinghy.
This early account is told, somewhat repetitively, in alternating chapters to JL’s recollection of Munich 1936, his worldly naivete in thinking only of sport, being presented with his medal by Rudolf Hess, (who later propositions him), rescuing the lovely Birgit from persecution as a Jew, worshipping her but finding Joe has acted whilst he mooned, and their separation being marked by Joe and Birgit’s marriage.
But JL’s account is directly contradictory of Gratton’s 1939-41 reality: Joe is dead, killed in the Blitz in London, and JL goes on to a brief but fascinating attachment to Churchill’s staff, asked to question the prisoner ‘Jonathan’ – in reality the newly captive Hess, who has flown to England to propose peace.
There is another internal parallel: JL has already seen enough of Churchill to have decided that there are two of him, virtual twins, the one who goes out in public, in morale boosting visits to Blitzed areas, with his homburg and his cigar, being a near identical double: slightly taller, slightly slimmer, but otherwise a duplicate.
And JL’s primary conclusion about prisoner ‘Jonathan’ is that he is also not Hess, but a very nearly identical duplicate (a theory that was raised in real life, although it has little authoritative support).
After this, the rest of JL’s account is relatively perfunctory. The War continues, he spends two and a half years in a German Prison Camp, emigrates to Australia on finding that Birgit has remarried, and generally fades away, his remaining history of no import.
JL’s memoirs are, of course, directly contradictory of Stuart Gratton’s reality. Needless to say, he starts pursuing the originals immediately. But JL’s daughter has vanished, her name can’t be traced, her address is non-existant. And a parcel arrives from Masada, the homeland created after the War for the Jews, who were not going to be allowed into Palestine and, in keeping with a proposition genuinely made, have instead been settled upon, and displaced the native population of Madagascar.
The parcel is from Sam Levy, JL’s navigator on that fateful raid, now long and happily settled in Masada. His statement is the fourth and shortest section of the story, the final section being comprised by ‘research’ materials Levy has gleaned, including many many pages from Joe’s diary. There is an immediate collision of realities: JL died in the bomber crash on 10 May 1941, Joe survived the bombing raid in London.
This final section sets out the reality that pertains to Stuart Gratton’s world. It is told primarily but not exclusively from Joe’s viewpoint. But it is undercut, and thus so is the entire book, by a troubling syndrome that develops after Joe’s head injury in the Blitz.
Joe becomes prey to hallucinatory fugues, complete real and realistic periods of existence that continue for differing lengths of time, that lead in one way or another, to confrontation with JL. But JL’s presence curtails the fugue, sending Joe back to the point at which it begins, after which the future envelops in a manner that is similar, but far from identical to Joe’s illusion.
Joe grows steadily more concerned at the recurrence of these fugues. His marriage is crumbling. He discovers JL has been visiting Birgit behind his back, exactly as in JL’s story. He suspects JL s his baby’s father, not himself. He grows ever more disturbed by Birgit’s reliance on her elderly neighbour, Mrs Gratton (yes), and her strange, middle-aged son Harry (Stuart Gratton’s adopted father’s name is…). What is real? Is any of what he is living real, or is he in a fugue that may, at any moment, unravel?
And, as a Red Cross representative, Joe finds himself drawn, as a fluent German speaker, into participant in a completely unofficial, but ultimately successful Peace Conference, headed on the German side by Hess and on the English side by the King’s younger brother, George, Duke of Kent.
And Joe makes two crucial interventions in the peace talks, one in private conversation with Hess, the other to Churchill, who is refusing to even contemplate peace, as a result of which the accord is signed, the War ends, both Hess and Churchill offer Joe jobs in Berlin, and he sets off whom to his wife and the baby due to be born soon. The only drawback is that, on return to England, Joe learns that JL is dead, in the last British bombing raid of the War.
But when he arrives at his home, it is to a series of shocks: the Grattons have moved in, the baby is born, a son, that the Grattons have already decided, with Birgit’s full compliance, to call Stuart. And sat in an armchair, his presence not revealed at first, is JL, in his RAF uniform.
It has been a fugue, a very long fugue, covering six moths, and all of the fugues we have already seen, and Joe’s life unwinds all the way back to the Red Cross ambulance bearing him back to Manchester with his Blitz-induced injuries.
And the book ends.
And it’s that ending that undermines everything. The Separation has already proved itself to be a thing of uncertainty, every moment, every step on ground that is not firm, that is as stable as shifting sand, liable at any moment to turn into something else. But whilst we are clued in late to the unreality of much of what Joe is recording, as his successes grow ever more grandiose and compelling, his unyielding views persuading everyone, the disappearance of all reality casts everything into doubt.
Who is Stuart Gratton? Is he the son of J L Sawyer (one of them, at any rate)? Does his version exist at all? How does JL’s memoirs, diametrically opposed to Gratton’s world, exist in it? Is there anything in this book in which we can truly believe?
Has the story ended or, as I said above, has it merely stopped?
I can’t give you any answers because I don’t know any. The Separation is, for someone like myself, who needs some form of anchor in fiction, both unfulfilling and thought-provoking. It is, either way, a book that demands to be read.
I should also say that I found the idea that Britain would have compromised in 1941, would have cooperated, or at least adopted a position of benevolent neutrality towards Nazi Germany – even with Hess replacing Hitler as Fuhrer – extremely difficult to swallow. I look on such things with hindsight – I was not born until ten years after the war ended – and see the Nazis as an evil that had to be defeated, come what may, and the argument that Britain would have stood down from War to enable Germany to crush Bolshevism is plausible only in a theoretical sense.
Otherwise, my one overall criticism of the book is that, for large portions, especially in its later stages, it ceases to e a story and becomes an alternate history. Priest shows he knows how to construct a believable alternate world, but in places it becomes too interested in itself, to the detriment of the narrative.
Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary book, without the shape of a resolution that would make it a work of genius.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Prestige

Because of the internationally successful Christopher Nolan film of 2006, The Prestige will probably go down as Christopher Priest’s best work, or most certainly best-known work. And it won’t be an undeserved fate.
The Prestige is certainly the least science fiction oriented of Priest’s works, even if it contains a scientifically implausible achievement an essential part of the story, and it is the most straightforward story in his oeuvre, in both conception and construction.
The book tells of the rivalry between two rival Victorian magicians by means of their own accounts of their lives and, to one extent or another, their hostility to one another. Both accounts – firstly by Alfred Borden, who performs as Le Professeur de la Magie, and Rupert Angier (later the 14th Lord Colverdale) as the Great Danton – comprise the greater part of the book, each preceded by a shorter account from the contemporary great-grandchildren of the two magicians, and ended by a brief contemporary section that ends the story with a twist of horror that, appropriately, has a very Nineteenth Century feel.
I’m going to assume that if you haven’t read the book, you have seen the film (which has a greater dramatic unity, dispensing with the contemporary element of the story, and which makes a greater fetish of the secrets of the two magicians). Dramatically, the story turns upon Borden’s extremely successful stage trick, The New Transported Man, and upon Angier’s inability to comprehend how this is achieved and the lengths to which he goes, on several levels, to better Borden’s trick.
The answer, in Borden’s case, is incredibly simple, even banal. Indeed, Priest prepares us for this in an early section (told by Borden), when he discourses upon magic, and the audience’s expectations of it. All magic is a trick: there is nothing that it genuinely supernatural,and the audience at heart does not want to know how the trick is performed, because it is a product of rationality and simplicity.
How can Borden disappear on one side of the stage and reappear instantly on its opposite side? He is twins, identical twins, an explanation Angier’s bluff, experienced ingeneur seizes upon instantly but Angier rejects. But simple though the explanation is, Priest is interested in, and bamboozles Angier with, the means by which the trick is perpetuated.
Though the truth is not exposed until much later in the book, it is openly displayed (in a manner guaranteed to cause confusion for the first time reader) in Borden’s text (a privately printed book of exceedingly limited circulation). To make the trick work, from a very early stage and for their entire lives, the Borden twins rigidly conceal their existence from everybody else (even the name Alfred is a fake, combined from Albert and Frederick).
The brothers never meet in person for more than fleeting seconds, and they alternate in Alfred Borden’s life, an existence that includes/excludes Borden’s wife, children and mistress. In Borden’s narrative, at times a dialogue takes place between I and I that sounds bizarrely schizophrenic, but which is entirely understandable once the true circumstances are known.
Interestingly, Angier first attempts to duplicate the trick he cannot understand by duplicating it exactly: Angier employs a double to appear after he disappears. This is less successful and satisfactory, for the double is not identical, but mainly because it is Angier who disappears offstage, and the double who appears, and who takes the applause.
The horror that underlies this story derives from Angier’s obsession with squaring this circle, an obsession no less great than that of Borden who has divided himself in two to live one life, creating an illusion in order to protect an illusion.
And he produces his version, In a Flash, which exceeds Borden’s trick in a way that, the roles aptly reversed, Borden cannot understand and, in attempting to uncover the mystery, inadvertently ‘kills’ his rival.
So far, I have been discussing the film as much as the book. The significant difference between the two, and which Priest (who discusses book and film at length in his self-published The Magic) identifies as the element that made him feel that the book was worth writing, is the contemporary framework.
It is through this that we are introduced to Borden and Angier. Andrew Westley, a would-be journalist who has found himself specialising in fantastic and implausible events, is drawn under false impressions to a former ancestral hall in Derbyshire by his near-contemporary, Kate Angier, properly Lady Katherine Angier. Westley was adopted when young, but has consciously avoided tracing his birth family, cutting himself off under the rational (yet petulant) decision that they did not want him so he wants nothing of them.
Only one factor contravenes this decision, and that is Westley’s persistent belief, underlaid by mysterious, super-natural experiences, that he was a twin, and that his twin is still alive somewhere and wishes to be reunited with him. But, in a pre-emption of Alfred Borden’s story, every record shows Westley to be an only child.
Westley discovers Kate has decoyed him to Colverdale Hall to force upon him knowledge of the birth family he has rejected: that his birth name was Nicholas Borden, that Alfred was his great-grandfather, that Borden and Angier feuded aggressively, that Kate is Angier’s great-granddaughter, and that in some way he neither believes nor understands, they are both marked by that feud.
It’s not until Kate provides her own narrative, after Borden has told his half, that we begin to see how that might be. Because Kate has met Westley, or rather Nicky Borden, before, many years earlier, when he was three and she five. It came about through a meeting of their parents, an unhappy, unsuccessful, indeed ultimately disastrous meeting that Kate, from her five year old perspective, cannot understand, nor give her adult audience enough to go on to come to reliable conclusions.
Except for two things. Kate’s father’s actions that night involve the exposure and use of the machinery behind Angier’s In a Flash, and subsequently, his abandonment of the family to disintegration, which in Kate’s case has resulted in fear, inertia, virtual hermitage and incipient, if not actual alcoholism. And those actions involve killing Nicky Borden, alias the very much alive Andrew Westley.
From this revelation, we move on to Angier’s account, given in the form of an extended, if occasional diary, its various lacunae arising from initially deliberate destruction, and latterly indifference and preoccupation.
Though Angier does, late in his account, refer to reading Borden’s narrative and comments upon the differing interpretations they have of certain events, there are no major contradictions, certainly not of the kind we are used to in Priest’s work, where we are left deciding between realities. But we are led, carefully and thoughtfully, back to In a Flash, the illusion Borden cannot decipher.
Which is because, like his own twinship, it has a simple explanation, though perhaps not banal on this occasion. In the book’s one excursion into speculative fiction, into the introduction of something not capable of concrete achievement, Angier is actually physically teleporting himself. In short, he is actually doing what Borden pretends to do, what is impossible: except for him.
At that point, I propose to stop discussing the story at all. The end of Angier’s account, the final contemporary section, these contains increasing elements of Gothic horror, dispensed with in a deliberately condensed manner at the very end, where Priest refrains from pinning answers down and allows his readers’ imaginations to spiral, with the benefit of hints that point me to clear conclusions, but which others may not find so defining – not to mention that there may be hints that others may seize upon but which I have not yet discerned.
Overall, The Prestige is a superb book, and one that I recommend highly. It is in part the product of detailed research which enables Priest to convince as to both the solidity of his Victorian milieu and, more importantly, the thoughts, feelings and obsessions of his magician characters.
His analysis of magic, it’s principles, its effects and its psychological underpinnings, are equally convincing in establishing the reality of the Victorian element. And whilst that one moment of science fiction, the teleportation machine – or rather, the bilocation machine – ought to be jarring, Priest quietly fixes it in the story as a rational component that does not jerk the reader out of either the Victorian stage or the psychological opposition of the two warring customers.
It is, rather, the classic moment when the underdog – and despite Priest’s efforts to make the magicians equals, Angier’s self-confessed failure to imagine makes him the permanently weaker of the pair – goes too far in his rivalry, and unleashes what proves to be destruction.
Though structurally it’s vital to Priest’s conception of the story, and to the final revelation of the Prestige of this superbly maintained illusion, I find the contemporary framework to be the weakest part of the novel. That’s because, whilst we learn about Borden and Angier in great and penetrating depth, we have no such opportunity to learn about Westley and Kate.
Though we see how each regards themselves, and how in contrast they see the other, their actual role in the story lasts little more than twelve hours. Their sections are short, their function as examples of the damage done by their forebears’ feud is overridden by the fact that they introduce us to the much more detailed and, I must say this, fascinating, magicians: in short, they are cyphers, MacGuffins, Old Peter telling tales to Vanya and Maroosia.
I accept that’s an unfair summary, especially given that what happens to Westley/Nicky in his childhood is startling and horrific, and has its central effect on what and who both Westley and Kate are in the modern era.
But beyond a few, deliberately vague details, the modern era is itself a cypher, a shell designed solely to tell a story that occupies two areas of the past, and whose physical ending in that imprecise present is deliberately archaic in inspiration and effect.
Further than that I won’t go. I have an old-fashioned respect for an ending, and whilst Priest harps on in The Magic about Christopher Nolan’s concentration upon the surprise ending and the lengths to which he goes to postpone it to the film’s very last seconds, his own ending is reliant upon strands coming together as late as possible.
At the end though, my main criticism of the book is trivial. My first Abacus paperback edition has been typeset by someone with a totally irritating aversion to the figure 1. In every instance where 1 crops up – and given the profusion of dates, especially in Angier’s diary, that’s a lot – the typesetter has used the capital I instead.
It’s a letter, not a number. Though a small thing, it is a perpetual irritation, an affectation and a sloppiness: letters and numbers look different on the page. Every time I see it, I am jerked out of the story by some fraction, removed from Priest’s world as writer into mine as reader. Nothing worse can be done in a story.
And The Prestige deserves far better.