Are you watching closely? The Prestige – A Relentless Rat Race

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The Prestige, the third act of a magic trick, is where the reality is set right again. However, in this film, the prestige itself is an illusion. Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film, The Prestige, is an intensely captivating film of two fellow magicians and friends who fall apart after an accident during a magic trick and become bitter enemies. Thereon begins their rat race to beat each other. The film is sadistic in nature where either magicians gain pleasure from the other one’s loss. 

The Prestige is based on a 1995 fantasy novel of the same name, written by Christopher Priest. The film has intense emotions and madness. It talks about trusting your partners, being loyal to them, and being honest towards being magicians. Instead of being worthy of success, being stubborn to get success can have terrible fallouts. In The Prestige film review, we will explore the obsession of the two magicians, their sacrifices and the unfair means they use to win the rat race. 

“Never show anyone. They’ll beg you and they’ll flatter you for the secret, but as soon as you give it up… you’ll be nothing to them.”

Summary – The Three Acts

“A cipher, an enigma, a search, a search for answers.” 

The scene opens and the first thing we see is dozens of hats dumped in the open. It fades into the next scene, where John Cutter is presenting magic to a young girl, who turns out to be Alfred Borden’s daughter later on. While John is presenting the magic to her, he tells her about the three acts of a magic trick – the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige. Alongside, we see Robert Angier performing on stage while Borden is trying to unravel the trick behind Angier’s magic.

Next, we see the hearing of Borden. Cutter tells the court that the tank in which Angier fell and drowned was placed there by Alfred Borden and that it was not a part of the act. A man called Owens comes to meet Borden in jail and offers him five thousand pounds and a good future for his daughter in exchange for his magic tricks, especially the trick behind the Transported man. Borden refuses. Later he reads the diary that Owens has given him, written by Angier.

Angier and Borden both worked under John Cutter, an engineer who constructed illusions and instruments for stage magic. During a water tank act, Angier’s wife Julia, who sinks in the water and is supposed to untie her wrists and come out, fails to do so and dies by drowning. Angier accuses Borden of tying the knot differently so Julia couldn’t untie it. Splitting thereon, Borden sets off to perform solo acts while Angier takes the stage and with Cutter’s help, goes on to build his career. 

Angier is filled with rage and to avenge Borden, he spoils his bullet catch trick and Borden loses his two fingers. Borden later develops a magic trick called “The Transported Man”. In this trick, two wardrobes were placed on the stage and Borden would enter in one wardrobe and come out of the other in no time. The audience was awed at this new trick and so was Angier. 

Angier wanted to understand his trick and the longer it took him to understand it, the more impatient he got. He could not stand Borden’s growing success. He sends his assistant Olivia to find out the trick, hires a double, kidnaps Fallon and even tries to offer money for the trick but Borden outsmarts him. It becomes Angier’s obsession to create a similar magic trick. 

Nicola Tesla’s machine finally helped him to create his own trick for the transported man, which let him go beyond the stage and transport across the theatre. He calls it “The Real Transported Man.” Though it seemed to be a successful act behind the scenes it was gruesome. Angier’s obsession became the cause of his failure, not on stage but his failure as a magician. 

The Unrestored Prestige

At the beginning of the Prestige film, John Cutter explains the three acts of a magic trick. He says that the first act is called The Pledge. In this act an apparently real situation is set up – the setting of the trick is revealed. It is followed by the next act called The Turn – where the setup is challenged. And finally comes the final part called The Prestige. In this part, the real magic happens and everything is restored back to normal.

For instance, in the water tank trick, Julia and the pot of water were used to set the situation. Tying Julia’s hands and putting her in the pot was a challenge. And finally, she untying the knot and coming out of the pot was the prestige. Just like every profession, being a magician also requires honesty. Magic is described as an illusion – what we see and believe is just a set-up. It does not allow the killing of a person, or an animal for that matter, whether it is a real person or a clone. If the original situation is not restored, that means that the prestige is gone, it won’t be magic anymore, if the characters are killed, it becomes a crime. 

Young Man’s Obsession

“Obsession is a young man’s game.”

John Cutter, the wise old man, tells Angier the only possible way to make Borden’s trick of Transported Man happen was through a double, a twin. But Angier, who believed that Borden was a better magician, refuses to accept Cutter’s explanation. He disregards the possibility of having a twin so much that when Olivia, who was spying on Borden, reveals the trick, Angier thinks she is on his side. 

At this point, Angier had already lost the battle. He was obsessed with Borden’s trick and wanted to defeat him by creating another transported man trick by himself. It started as revenge that Angier was adamant about taking on Borden for killing his wife and ended up as an obsession with defeating Borden at his own trick. Instead of attracting the audience using his own tricks, which too would have destroyed Borden eventually, he decided to steal his work. 

Borden on the other hand, was obsessive, but differently. His passion was becoming a great magician. He played mind tricks with Gerald Root, Angier’s double, catching him at an hour when he was far from being sober. Borden was confident about his secret. Destroying Angier was a pleasure for him but not an obsession. He planned things extensively and he was keener on creating a unique magic trick.  

“… a real magician will try to invent something new that other magicians scratch their heads over.”

Secrets are my life

“See, sacrifice, Robert. That’s the price of a good trick.”

Every great act, that would last a lifetime, demands sacrifices. Alfred Borden lives the half-life while Fallon Borden, his twin, lives the other half. They share the same identity and are so dedicated to this masterpiece that when Angier shoots off Borden’s two fingers, Borden’s twin gets his fingers chopped off, which is a terrible sacrifice.

Sarah, wife of one, discovers his infidelity and believing that he no longer loves her, kills herself. Olivia, on the other hand, finds Borden inhuman when he says he never loved Sarah soon after her death and leaves her for good. Hence, both brothers lose the love of their lives and yet remain loyal to each other and to the trick. Borden spends a long time in jail and eventually loses his twin brother.

Robert Angier too had a tough decision to make. When Borden asks him what he knows about sacrifice, Angier reveals a much more horrific sacrifice. According to Tesla’s machine, anything that is put through it creates a clone. Angier devices a trick good enough to beat Borden’s, the only problem being that the person going into the machine would be drowned and the clone would come up as the transported man. Unfortunately, Angier sacrificed his life when he performed the trick for the first time on stage and what remained behind was just a clone. 

“It took courage to climb into that machine every night, not knowing if I’d be the man in the box or in the prestige.”

Glory On Stage

We all seek appreciation for our work, more so if one is a stage artist – which is why after every performance all the artists appear on stage to take their share of applause. However, that couldn’t happen with Angier. While his double, Gerald mirrored him on stage, Angier received applause from beneath the stage, unlike Borden and his twin who alternatively appeared on stage. 

At this point, both the magicians split their ideologies. For Angier, the audience’s applause was his reward while Borden focused on the perfection of the act. However, their ideologies matched at one point – at the thought of defeating the other. Just like Angier sabotages Borden’s bullet catch trick, so does Borden sabotage Angier’s transported man act. Both bring each other’s glory down for their own satisfaction. 

Not only was it his obsession that played behind his madness about the Transported Man but was also the success that this one trick had brought him. When Cutter advises him to stop the show because he has risen too high to get away with professional embarrassment, Angier brings out the newspaper article that called him a ‘premiere Performer’. He was consumed by the success and wanted to continue for as long as he didn’t discover Borden’s trick. 

The Final Act

The first scene of the film – dozens of hats dumped on the ground – is nothing but the price Angier had paid to become the great magician. Those hats represent Angier’s sacrifice that nobody ever acknowledged or would ever acknowledge in future. He was so consumed by the obsession that he put himself as the pledge, and drowned himself every night so that the clone could continue to perform The Real Transported Man. 

The Prestige film ends with the same lines said by Cutter at the beginning of the film while explaining the three acts to the little girl. At the film’s beginning, the explanation was put alongside Angier performing The Real Transported Man.  But this time, the explanation is juxtaposed with the real secret behind the act. Cutter presenting the magic to the girl dissolves into Borden receding from backstage, the camera pans to the row of water tanks but does not clearly show what’s inside it. The scene dissolves into the dozen hats dumped and then back to that one water tank where we clearly see Robert Angier’s clone floating dead inside. 

It compels us to think harder because the first time someone watches the film, the idea is quite perplexing. Why were the hats lying there? If Angier was right in front of us then who was it inside the tank? The audience is left on the edge of a cliff and they are bound to sit in peace so that they can put the pieces together. 

Conclusion

In the end, the prestige is lost from the trick but what we get from watching the film is Christopher Nolan’s artistic knock at our conscience. It brings forth the human tendency to take destructive measures to reach our goals. Along with obsession, secrets and sacrifices, the film also subtly touches on a few other themes – the human nature of deceit being one. The Prestige film doesn’t show either of the magicians as good or evil but we see them possessing both, hence duality stands as another theme. And finally, the third act of the trick was missing and yet they were the magicians in the eyes of the audiences; in the process of becoming what we aim for, morality often fades out. 

The film is sadistic in nature, as mentioned earlier. The dim lights, closed doors, under stage scenes intensify the dark and ugly intention of the magicians. Most of the film takes place behind the stage in dull lights, creating soft shadows and in this darkness is revealed the truth while the act, a mere illusion, a fantasy, takes place in front of the public in a brightly illuminated stage. Brilliant at psychology, artistic with technology, and playful with the sequence, Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige is a must-watch. 

“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.”

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Ishika21

A nonchalant and evasive exterior acting as a smokescreen for my stubbornly volatile and sensitive self; you'll mostly find this homo sapient avoiding any and every chance at social interaction.
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Ishika21

A nonchalant and evasive exterior acting as a smokescreen for my stubbornly volatile and sensitive self; you'll mostly find this homo sapient avoiding any and every chance at social interaction.

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