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After the little liked and little seen Canadian drama, Mr Rice’s Secret, in 2000, David Bowie makes a stylish return to movies as brilliant Serb-born scientist Nikola Tesla – the only character based on a real historical figure in Christopher Nolan’s new film, The Prestige. Tesla’s life and work are every bit as magical as the film’s subject matter, reports Andrew L. Urban, and Bowie gives him a profound mystique.

The first time you see him on screen, there is a moment of hesitation; you vaguely recognise the iconic features like the eyes, but the mouth is half hidden by a heavy moustache. It’s only when he speaks, even though it is with a soft, vaguely East European accent – more a cadence, really – that your first impression is confirmed. It IS David Bowie.

But unlike the beautifully handsome werewolf in Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) opposite Catherine Deneuve, or the British soldier at a Japanese POW camp in Merry Christmas Me Lawrence (also 1983, a peak year of his acting career), Bowie now projects a sophisticated, almost decadent authority weighted with the beginnings of age. In Mr Lawrence, Bowie famously played opposite another talented musician cum actor, Ryuichi Sakamoto, who composed that film’s haunting theme.

"a career spanning four decades"

In a career spanning four decades, several changes of musical direction, hit and miss movies and a period of drug addiction, Bowie has influenced the course of popular music several times and influenced several generations of musicians. His promotional videos in the 70s and 80s are regarded as ground-breaking, and as a live concert act, he is regarded as the most theatrical of them all. Remember Ziggy Stardust, the space age rock star? That was just his first comeback concept album; it was 1972.

He is in constant demand for movies as writer and or performer of songs (latterly including Failure To Launch, Cheaper By The Dozen, Kinky Boots, Lord Of War, Just Like Heaven, Stealth, C.R.A.Z.Y. and many more), but in The Prestige, Nolan just wants him to play Nikola Tesla, the reclusive scientist holed up in Colorado, experimenting with the mysteries of light, electromagnetic energy and the possibilities these forces offer.

The film stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as two Victorian-era magicians, Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale), who abandon their friendship after tragedy strikes during one daring performance. They launch into a determined rivalry that builds into an escalating battle of tricks and an unquenchable thirst to uncover each other’s trade secrets – especially the sensational illusion of The Transplanted Man. Their conflict impacts on Angier’s mentor, Cutter (Michael Caine) as well as his assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) and Borden’s wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall). It also draws in the reclusive and brilliant builder of special machines, Tesla (Bowie) and his sidekick Alley (Andy Serkis). Obsession turns the conflict into a battle to the death.

When Robert Angier tracks down Tesla in Colorado (in a couple of scenes that establish Tesla’s obsession with security – later justified), Tesla is in the final stages of building an electromagnetic machine that could teleport objects - and even humans - from its crackling heart to somewhere else. For a magician working in Victorian London at the top of his game, a contraption like this would mean eternal fame and instant fortune.

It’s a clever idea, taking a real character and building him into the story, especially as the real Tesla was just such a scientific adventurer, giving Bowie plenty to work with.

Born on the Serb-Austrian border in 1856, Tesla is regarded as one of the most important inventors in history. He is well known for his contributions to the discipline of electricity and magnetism in the late 19th and early 20th century. Tesla's patents and theoretical work form the basis of modern alternating current electric power (AC) systems, including the polyphase power distribution systems and the AC motor, with which he helped usher in the Second Industrial Revolution.

He moved to Hungary as a young man, and on the opening of the telephone exchange in Budapest in 1881, Tesla became the chief electrician to the company, and was later engineer for the country's first telephone system. After a brief stint in Paris, Tesla moved to the US, and quickly found a job with Thomas Edison.

In the US, Tesla's fame rivalled that of any other inventor or scientist in history or popular culture. After his demonstration of wireless communication in 1893 and after being the victor in the War of Currents, he was widely respected as America's greatest electrical engineer. Much of his early work pioneered modern electrical engineering and many of his discoveries were of groundbreaking importance. In 1943, the United States Supreme Court credited him as being the inventor of the radio.

"mysterious wall of light"

But most pertinently as far as Christopher Nolan is concerned, Tesla began to theorize about electricity and magnetism's power to warp, or rather change, space and time and the procedure by which man could forcibly control this power. Near the end of his life, Tesla was fascinated with the idea of light as both a particle and a wave, the fundamental proposition of what would become quantum physics. This field of inquiry led to the idea of creating a "wall of light" by manipulating electromagnetic waves in a certain pattern.

This mysterious wall of light would enable time, space, gravity and matter to be altered at will, and engendered an array of Tesla proposals that seem to leap straight out of science fiction, including anti-gravity airships, teleportation, and time travel.

In dressing Bowie as Tesla, costume designer Joan Bergin took a lead from her research into the maverick scientist. “He looked like he was always going to the opera … he was impeccably turned out,” she says, “so we gave David a cashmere coat with lamb’s wool collar that suggests an elegant, brilliant man who was beaten down by minds who could never aspire to his heights.”

When recreating Tesla’s Colorado Springs lab, production designer Nathan Crowley also stayed close to the historical record, including building a life size replica of the Tesla-Coil. He’s the only real historical figure in the film, but at the same time, Tesla pushes the film out of Victoriana and the Industrial Revolution and takes it into science fiction realms, which is very interesting for me.”

Never putting much focus on his finances, Tesla died impoverished and forgotten, aged 86. David Bowie gives us another glimpse of this amazing man, in a charismatic characterisation.

Published November 16, 2006

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David Bowie in The Prestige


The Prestige opens in Australia on November 16, 2006.

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