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“Are you watching closely?” are the first words spoken in The Prestige, a movie about 19th-century magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), whose friendship turns into a rivalry, then descends into obsession.
And the question can—and will—bear repeating. After all, this 2006 film was directed and cowritten by Christopher Nolan, who first came to fame with Memento, a dark mystery centered upon memory loss that was (mostly) told in reverse. But fans who sing Christopher Nolan’s praises often forget about The Prestige, and it’s our job at Trunkworthy to make sure it holds its rightful, exalted place in his filmography.
The Prestige takes its title—and overall structure—from the three parts that make up every magic trick, which Angier’s ally Cutter (Michael Caine) explains: The first is “The Pledge,” where the magician shows you something ordinary. The second is “The Turn,” where he makes it do something extraordinary, like disappear. But that’s not enough. The third part comes when he brings it back, and that’s called “The Prestige.”
But within these acts, the film unfolds in a nonlinear fashion. Misdirection—such as having a beautiful female assistant (played here by Piper Perabo and Scarlett Johansson)—is a key element in magic, and Nolan uses everything from untrustworthy narratives and red herrings to outright lies, all manner of deceptions, and twist after twist after twist to keep the viewer off-balance.
The movie’s intricate plotline can’t be described without revealing 16 tons of spoilers, so let’s just say there are about two dozen examples of parallel images or characters, stories and dialog repeated, and events or tricks that are depicted twice.
The battle of Borden’s skills and Angier’s showmanship mirrors the conflicts between inventors Nikola Tesla (portrayed by David Bowie) and Thomas Edison and the magic vs. science (“real magic”) that appear as subplots.
But beyond the pleasures to be found in the fiendishly clever storytelling, The Prestige is ultimately about such bigger questions as identity (Are people who they say they are? And what if they’re not?), sacrifice (What are people willing to endure for their art?), and—most of all—the danger of obsession (How far is too far? And what might be the price?). It’s also worth noting that The Prestige doesn’t take place in a black-and-white world. There’s no moral high ground to be found. Neither of the main characters is a “bad person” per se, but they both do some indefensible, reprehensible things that they end up wishing they hadn’t. These same ideas inform Nolan’s Batman movies as well his 2010 film Inception. In fact, The Prestige can be seen as the bridge between Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Memento, which is one more reason to watch this film if you like his others.
The film is also a delight for anyone who’s ever enjoyed watching a magic trick. And if you’re a more serious fan of magic, there are all sorts of in-jokes. The brilliant sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay—who served as the film’s technical advisor and taught the stars enough trickery to be believable in their roles—plays a crowd-pleasing but hackneyed magician. Famed period conjurer Chung Ling Soo (played by Chao Li Chi)—who would eventually die onstage from a bullet-catch trick gone wrong—appears in a key, albeit minor role.
There’s also a trenchant line about the use of “plants” in an audience, some behind-the-scenes looks that reveal how some of the tricks are performed, and an unforgettable use of the magician’s traditional incantation, “abracadabra.”
Some people may find The Prestige’s plot lines a fun challenge; some eagle-eyed others may its clues are more obvious. But just like Cutter says in the film’s final scene: “Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it, because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.