Not every movie is meant to be a form of mind-numbing entertainment. Sometimes things get complicated. Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is one of these movies. Not only is the subject matter itself tricky, but the way the story is told and the way characters are developed is not straight-forward. The Prestige is one of those films which allows the audience to come up with their own conclusions about the events that take place. While this leaves much of the importance of the film open to interpretation based on personal perspective, it also provides an opportunity for misunderstanding. This article outlines some of the more complicated aspects of this impressive film
Warning, this article contains spoilers. In order to reach the depth of analysis required to do this movie any justice, there are significant details about the plot. I’m not making any attempt whatsoever to hold anything back. What that means is if you haven’t seen this film I would recommend going and watching it right now before proceeding any further. I don’t want it on my conscious that I ruined someone’s movie-watching experience!
One of the most fascinating things about The Prestige is how detailed it is. No matter how many times you watch it, there will always be something new that you didn’t notice or recognize before that helps you to understand what is happening. These clues help experienced viewers piece the story together in better detail each time we watch it, but also allow the film to be enjoyable time after time. Unlike other films, these clues aren’t just “Easter Eggs” thrown in for attentive viewers. They are actually meant to provide additional connections that the main plot of the film doesn’t do by itself. Some viewers might expect a movie to present all of the important bits clearly, but The Prestige is different. Like a magician, it hides some of the finer details of its trick so that only those who know what they are looking for will appreciate the performance.
The first “clue” is the very first shot of the film: a pile of top hats on the mountain side. We know that these hats come from Tesla’s (David Bowie’s) attempts to fine-tune his teleportation machine for Angier (Hugh Jackman). At the most basic level, the brief image fortells to us that the teleportation machine isn’t really a teleportation machine, but more like a cloning machine. This is important knowledge that first-time viewers don’t recognize for themselves until the end of the film. It also is a reminder of how Angier’s teleportation trick really works as one of the early sequences of the film shows us in more detail. However, the real purpose of the shot is to tie into the title of the film itself, “The Prestige”. As is explained to us, “The Prestige” is the final step of a magic trick. It is the step when the magician takes something extraordinary and makes it do something unexpected. Here, we are witnessing “The Prestige” of the film. The film is, at its base, about people and their relationships. That’s the ordinary, “The Pledge”. We see them as magicians, we see them do amazing things. That’s the extraordinary, “The Turn.” Then we see the teleportation machine, represented by these hats. We don’t understand how it works, and more importantly, we don’t want to know how it works. This is the extraordinary doing something unexpected. This is “The Prestige” within The Prestige. In the opening dialogue, Cutter (Michael Caine) explains, “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 know. You want to be fooled.” That is true, and that statement is represented by these hats. We don’t really want to know how this machine works because what this machine leads to is terrible. The effect of it working successfully (or unsuccessfully, depending on how you look at it) leads a man to repeatedly kill himself for the sakes of entertainment. It allows Angier not only to out-do his competition, Borden (Christian Bale), but to frame Borden for murder. In the process of trying to figure out “The Prestige” Angier ruins his own life. More importantly, through the process of trying to out-do Angier and be the best at what he does, Borden has ruined his own life. They are both equally at fault for what happens to them by the end of the film. It would have been easier to just be fooled instead of pursuing the truth. That’s the twist of the film, not the fact that Angier is actually Fallon.
This is echoed in the canaries that are shown at the beginning of the film. The trick with the folding cage ends up killing a canary each time it is performed. This is the kind of terrible “truth” that audiences would rather not know about. Instead, they are fooled that the canarie is alive and OK at the end. This is incredibly similar to Angier’s teleporting man trick. Each time that the trick is performed, he is the canary that is killed. The audience doesn’t know this terrible “truth”, and Angier goes to great lengths to make sure they don’t find out. The Prestige tells us that the truth can be dangerous, and really we’re better off being fooled about the world around us. We hold the truth in such high regard, but are we really willing to do what it takes to get there?
These clues are especially important given the fact that the film tells its story in a non-linear fashion, as Christopher Nolan is known for. Unlike a traditional film that may use flashbacks or flash-forwards as storytelling, The Prestige doesn’t have a “base” storyline from which those flashbacks or flash-forwards extend. Instead, the entire plot is told through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. There’s no “present time”, which is a misinterpretation that a lot of people make, and as a result can make the film more difficult to understand. The clues, as described above, provide most of the reference points that are required for the audience to understand the (lack of) linearity of the film.
The journals are one aspect of the film that helps the audience understand when a particular scene takes place in relation to the others. We know that both Angier and Borden are obsessed with understanding the truth behind each other’s tricks, but the reason behind why they want to know is what audiences should pay attention to in order to make sense of the plot. Angier is not motivated to out-do Borden until Angier determines that he can’t beat Borden unless he knows the truth. Borden doesn’t need the Angler’s diary until Borden already has his. Any scenes with Tesla or the machine come after Angier finds and deciphers Borden’s dairy. Any scenes with Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) and Sarah (Rebecca Hall) occur before Angier has Borden’s dairy because he uses Olivia to try and get the diary which ultimately causes Sarah to kill herself. Any scenes with Borden in jail/court occur after he has witnessed Angier’s teleportation trick and wants the diary for himself as proof that he is not guilty.
The film is also not attempting to have a complicated plot for the sake of having a complicated plot or building on the backwards structure of Nolan’s previous film, Memento. Instead, the film’s “fluid” structure has a purpose and meaning. An event in the past seen through a flashback is used to create a foundation of reference and tone for future events. If the film had occurred chronologically, those important moments would have been easier to forget. By placing scenes back to back that pivot around a particular plot point, Nolan is making sure the cause of the character’s actions are fresh in the mind of the audience before he shows the effect. Similarly, many of the clues sprinkled throughout the film would not have been as effective because either the event they foretold had already happened or else the mystery had already been solved. Fallon’s true identity, for example, may have been much more apparent if the film progressed in chronological order and we got to know Borden better at the beginning of the film.
A common misinterpretation of the film is that Angier is the protagonist who is working to get revenge for the wrongful death of his wife. This may be true, but for only a few scenes. One of the brilliant aspects of The Prestige (and many of Nolan’s films as well) is that both its main characters portray the protagonist as well as the antagonist in any given scene. Therefore, it’s not true to say that Angier is the protagonist just because the film follows his story closer than Borden’s for the first half. In fact, if the film ran backwards, we would know more about Angier’s character than Borden and he would seem more like the protagonist. To say the film is without a true protagonist and antagonist could also be correct, but I don’t believe that’s what Nolan intended. Instead, he’s showing that human beings naturally inhibit both traits. We can be noble and courageous, but also greedy and jealous.
Nolan is showing that these two men may be awe-inspiring magicians, but they’re just people. This theme rings true for many of the other characters as well. Tesla, for example, is a genius, yet no one will take him seriously. People aren’t ready for his inventions, as proven by the fact that Edison sends men to burn down his lab towards the end of the film. That’s a statement as much about Tesla as it is about mankind in general. People are inherently afraid of change, and Tesla is only one puny, insignificant man working against the greater consensus. Cutter is the wise old man behind many of Angier’s best tricks, but he’s not good enough to fool Borden or to stop Angier from doing horrible things. Likewise, Olivia is supposed to be loyal to Angier, but she falls for Borden and causes more damage in the process. The Prestige simply shows us what we already know but easily forget in film, we’re all human. We can be both extraordinary and entirely unexceptional.
The fact that Angier is also Lord Caldlow is an interest aspect of the character that should also be considered when examining the antagonist and protagonist qualities of the character. Because Angier was rich all along, the only reason he became a magician is because he enjoyed doing it (along with his wife). Borden, on the other hand, also enjoyed being a magician, but he needed the money too. The film shows that as he becomes more famous, he gets more money. Angier, never has that problem. When his feud starts with Borden it is because of the death of his wife. He wants to prove to Borden that he is the better magician because it was Borden’s mistake that caused him so much pain. Borden is sorry about the death, but he has to fight back against Angier because if he gives up his family will not have an income. Therefore, both of them are, in a way, appearing to fight for their families, but the feud becomes so much more. Ultimately they become so involved in the feud that they ultimately forget about their families and as a result, they lose everything. Fighting for your friends and family is a noble, protagonistic quality, but becoming narcissistically obsessed is just about the opposite.
There Is No Winner
The fact that many people might falsely see Angier as the protagonist might lead them to come to the conclusion that he ultimately “won” the battle between the magicians. This is a reasonable conclusion if you assume that Borden always had sinister intentions and ultimately is responsible for Angier’s murder. However, such a concept ignores the fact that Angier lost everything of importance as well before he lost his life. It also incorrectly assumes that Angier shows up later in the film as Lord Caldlow because of his success as The Great Danton has allowed him to become wealthy. This is not the truth. The film alludes to the fact that Angier had always been the wealthy Lord Caldlow, but that during performances he used a stage name in order to hide his true identity.
The other perspective is that Borden is the winner because Fallon is able to get revenge at the end. Furthermore, Borden was always a step in front of Angier which forced Angier to take more desperate measures to beat him. As such, Borden was the superior magician. Yet, despite these things, Borden was ultimately a fraud just as much as Angier. He willingly did things that caused harm to himself and his family in order to prevent other people from finding out the truth and to maintain his persona. He was the one that made the initial mistake due to arrogance that began the feud, and he was the one that ultimately was responsible for his fate by attempting to sneak into Angier’s show to see behind the scenes (where a trap awaited him).
The point is that there is no winner. Greed ultimately claims both men’s lives, and even if “Fallon” survived, he survived without his brother and the woman he loved. In fact, no one wins in this movie. The friends and family of these two men all suffer as a result of their efforts to sabotage each other. Tesla created an interesting machine, but he loses his lab and is back on the run. Sarah loses her life and Olivia loses her employer and also her lover. Life rarely goes as planned, and if the film had ended with either Angier or Borden’s efforts yielding a victory, it would have been somewhat of a let down. They both did horrible things and to let one of them “win” would have been the easy, audience-pleasing way out. Instead, the film has more to tell us about their failures than in their successes.
Check back next week as we discuss another film that is commonly misinterpreted.
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