Are you watching closely? This review reveals major plot points about Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige.
Magic tricks frequently involve misdirection. To create an illusion, the magician needs to deliver an action the audience shouldn’t see; this requires providing them with something else on which they can concentrate.
I believe that one of the reasons it’s difficult for magicians to fool other magicians is that magicians know what to ignore and what to focus on. When it comes to the magic of the movies, however, things get a little trickier, well because there is a movie director who can choose to show parts of a trick immediately or later in the film.
This misdirection is still sometimes necessary but can be hard to achieve. In a film, a more sophisticated approach is needed, one that distracts the audience from thinking too hard about one element of the narrative by getting them to speculate about another aspect. The Prestige does it better.
The film manages to withhold this critical piece of information until the last few minutes, using a variety of methods to dissuade viewers from guessing it. Some of these methods are basic, but the most effective find them merely announcing what the secret is at a moment when nobody is paying much attention.
The Prestige becomes a much richer experience on second viewing, when you know what’s going on and can start to wrap your head around the sacrifices made by both Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).
The height of the film is when Alfred Borden performs a new trick; he introduces the trick that will fuel the rest of the movie: The Transported Man. Borden devises it, and Angier, as we see, immediately decides to steal it; their rivalry will intensify over years until it leads to the demise of both men (or for two of the three, as it eventually turns out).
Angier’s awestruck declaration afterwards, “It’s the greatest magic trick I’ve ever seen.” inspires enormous curiosity which leads to some impenetrable revelations toward the end. When one first watches this movie, you cannot remember being tricked by the “twist” of the transported man, so much as being drawn into the plot enough that there is no ongoing speculation.
The film undoubtedly employs multiple levels of misdirection, some of which fall into the “hide in plain sight” category. For instance, Borden places a lot of emphasis on his little rubber ball, tossing it to an audience member for inspection and then declaring it to be magical.
In truth, the ball has nothing to do with the trick, apart from creating a memorable image (which Angier will later modify beautifully to tossing a top hat across the stage). At this time, because you’re watching too closely, you have forgotten the opening narration by Cutter, it’s there, but at the back of your mind, you just can’t bring it to fit into this moment. The film begins with Cutter saying…
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course…it probably isn’t.
The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course, you’re not looking. You don’t want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.
That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”. The perfect way to start a puzzle. Every step of the way, Nolan tells us what is going to happen. Every line is essential because it comes back by the end of the movie and is used in one way or another.
The third act.
Also, we do not see the moment when Borden comes out of the other door and catches the ball; the film only shows Borden already holding the ball, a few minutes later and already bowing to claps and cheers. You get the idea of the prestige part of the trick even though you don’t see the detail. The director deliberately leaves the audience guessing and almost believing Angier’s statement, that this was “the greatest magic trick I’ve ever seen.”
Cutter flatly announces that Borden’s The Transported Man trick uses a double, and then persuades Angier that he needs to find a double if he wants to duplicate it. Angier promptly does that. It takes a special gift to recognize that the best way to conceal information is to openly reveal it at a moment when the audience is entirely consumed with another aspect of the trick.
Cutter explains: “The trick was too good, it was too simple. The audience hardly had time to see it.” The film employs an equally simple trick, and equally good as well: show the audience/ viewer emphatically but without any real indication of what “it” even is, until the very end of the film.
What makes the film more expansive is even the conversations themselves. One is made to think that even the conversations have some hidden magical tricks. Of course, they hold the plot and development of sophisticated characters who become masters of magic in their spheres. Tesla’s introduction as a character is one of the best presentations.
He says, while speaking with Angier, “You’re familiar with the phrase “Man’s reach exceeds his grasp”? It’s a lie. Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve. The only limits on scientific progress are those imposed by society. The first time I changed the world, I was hailed as a visionary. The second time I was asked politely to retire.
The world can only accept one change at a time. And so here I am. Enjoying my “retirement”. Nothing is impossible, Mr Angier, what you want is expensive.” For that time you can help but try hard to think what he means by that and if it somehow has great significance in the plot.
Nikola Tesla first appearance
I would say that even though there has been a spate of magician films which try to mess with your head, but none of them manages it so thoroughly and skillfully as the Prestige. For instance, Angier’s transition to Lord Caldlow still gives me chills when I think about it. There’s an atmosphere in The Prestige that feels so profoundly wrong in a way that terrifies without ever needing a jump scare.
Actual horror movies need to take note. Also, the ambient and unsettling music is genius, atmospheric and obsessive. At the end of the film, you realize that even though you were “watching closely” you had only missed a lot. It’s not you, its magic, and thanks to the directors and great showmanship by the characters.
The ending gives me more chills, but for the sake of my boiling kettle, I have to leave this here and make some coffee while I prepare to re-watch the film. Let’s see if we can find out which “Borden” loved Sarah? What sacrifices did “Angier” make?. Enjoy putting the puzzle of The Prestige together. Are you watching closely?