Honesty: The Magic Trick at the Heart of The Prestige

With spoilers, a few thoughts on Christopher Nolan's underrated The Prestige, and the trick within it...

It goes without saying, but The Prestige is very much spoiled in this article for those that have yet to sample its delights.

An early effort from writer/director Christopher Nolan, and – dare I say – a criminally under-appreciated one, The Prestige is a film that richly rewards multiple re-watches.

Unfairly thought of by some at the time as a stylish ‘twist’ movie in the vein of early Shyamalan, such a description does the film a great disservice. For while there are certainly mysteries to unwrap upon first viewing, watching through it again armed with foreknowledge does so much more than tickle the ‘oh, so that’s why so-and-so did such-and-such’ part of your brain. In fact, you could argue that you only truly understand the characters, their motivations and the emotional journeys they take, when you know all the secrets the film has been hiding in plain sight.

I say ‘hiding’, but the first thing that hits you upon re-watching the film is how honest it is with the audience regarding its various ambiguities and twists. An accumulation of metaphor, foreshadowing and characters plainly and simply speaking aloud the answers, The Prestige is unrelenting in the various ways it divulges solutions to its mysteries. It’s only through tricky editing, intercutting timelines and our own expectations that such transparency is obfuscated to the extent that the eventual reveals – at least for me – were genuinely surprising.

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Let’s start with one of the more subtle examples of the film’s confessional bent – the birdcage illusion. The film enjoys playing with metaphor – as does, I believe, the adapted novel by Christopher Priest (I haven’t read it, so these thoughts are based purely on the film) – and the birdcage illusion is the most prominent example, given the frequency of its appearance and the way it mirrors at least two crucial plot points.

The first time we see it performed is right at the beginning of the film; Michael Caine’s magic engineer Cutter is performing it for a little girl. It’s intercut with moments from a climactic sequence in the movie where Hugh Jackman’s character Angier performs his own remarkable illusion. Caine’s voiceover explains the three acts of a magic trick – the pledge, the turn and the prestige – that the simultaneously unfolding performances serve to visually illustrate. It’s only when we get to the respective finales that the illusions seemingly deviate: Cutter’s bird is made to successfully reappear, delighting the little girl, but Angier seemingly falls to his doom into a water tank, and begins to drown.

It’s a deliberately confusing way to start the film. At this point, the secret to performing the birdcage trick has yet to be revealed, and the nature of Angier’s illusion is several reels away. Starved of this information and context, the audience’s most logical assumption would be that they are being shown two contrasting illusions: one that is executed successfully, and one that has gone tragically (or nefariously) wrong.

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However, upon a second viewing, armed with the aforementioned knowledge, it becomes blindingly obvious: both performances are essentially the same – they’re mirroring each other. The only difference is that we see ‘the prestige’ for the birdcage illusion, but the unsavoury inner workings of The Real Transported Man.* The facsimile of Angier falling into the water tank is no different than the bird we now know is being crushed in the collapsible cage: a double being sacrificed in the name of wonder and entertainment.

*Incidentally, I find the ever-evolving name of the central illusion as it’s passed between the duelling magicians more than a little Spinal Tap-esque. The Transported Man is nicked by Angier to become The New Transported Man; Borden steals it back as The Original Transported Man, before Angier trumps it with The Real Transported Man. How I would have loved a Tufnel-inspired The New Original Transported Man.

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The macabre secret behind the birdcage trick is revealed quite early in the running time – soon after its second appearance as performed by The Great Virgil, with Christian Bale’s Borden assisting. The crushing of the covered cage causes a little boy to cry, and he’s inconsolable even when the bird is seemingly brought back at the trick’s conclusion.

“But where’s his brother?” the boy wails, impressing Borden with his insight.

“He’s a sharp lad, your son.”

Watch The Prestige on Amazon

Now regardless of whether the ‘Borden has an identical twin’ revelation was a surprise to you at the film’s climax or not, you have to admire the audacity of the writer/director spelling out a major twist in the first act. It’s a cheeky piece of foreshadowing that had me shaking my head with gleeful incredulity during my first re-watch. How did I not pick on that the first time around? But Nolan gets away with it due to the very precise way he disseminates information. Like any good magic trick, it’s all about the timing.

At this point in the film, we have yet to see Borden’s first iteration of The Transporting Man illusion. Hell, we’ve yet to have it confirmed that the little boy’s suspicions about the birdcage trick are true. So much transpires between this exchange and the full reveal of Borden’s illusion that this foghorn of an explanation has escaped the memory by the time it would have proved salient.

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The final time we see the birdcage trick is right at the end: a repeat of Michael Caine’s performance at the beginning of the film. It actually gives those seeing the film for the first time a glimpse of what it will be like to sit through it again, as the secrets to all the mysteries have now been revealed – or at least confirmed. It therefore allows this metaphor to be the most on-the-nose: Borden’s seemingly miraculous escape from behind bars to surprise and delight his daughter, made possible by the sacrifice of a double who never makes it out of his cage alive. Again, the answer to how Borden could possibly escape this predicament has been presented to us throughout – we just didn’t know it yet.

Not that metaphor is the only example of the film offering answers in plain sight. There’s also the not-small matter of the film’s characters offering up the correct solutions themselves. Let’s take Borden’s secret to performing The Transported Man as an example:

“He uses a double,” yells an exasperated Michael Caine at least a half dozen times, usually to a dismissive Angier. The latter doesn’t believe such a simple explanation and, as moviegoers, neither do we, because what kind of film shouts the twist at you across several different scenes?

And it doesn’t stop there: we see another magician living a lie for the purposes of his act – and Borden’s solemn appreciation of such an approach – in the first reel. Then there’s Borden’s conversation with Angier’s own drunken double:

“I had a similar act and I used a double,” Borden tells him. Our assumption is that he’s lying in order to sow seeds of discontent, but he’s actually telling the truth (while also stirring the pot).

read more: Why The Illusionist Deserves Another Chance

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When Cutter tries to convince Angier for the final time, he might as well be speaking to the audience:

“I know how he does it: the same way he’s always done it. But you want it to be more…”

The film is letting the audience trip itself up with its own expectations, and its own understanding of the way thrillers work. A golden rule, one that’s been drilled into us over decades of Hitchcockian tropes, is that the initial solutions presented to us by characters within the film are rarely accurate. We’ve now been told several times by an expert in the field that Borden uses a double, so it can’t be that.

And the film brilliantly reinforces our scepticism by not actually showing us the whole illusion until late into the running time. When Angier is relaying his marvel at The Transported Man to Cutter and Olivia, and Cutter is offering his opinion as to how he pulls it off, Nolan is careful to avoid showing us the performance in its entirety, lest we conclude that Cutter’s theory must be correct. All we have to go on is the wonderment on Angier’s face and his proclamation that it’s the greatest magic trick he’s ever seen.

Given the choice, an audience will always side with the more intriguing, unknowable mystery over the potentially disappointing reality. That’s why so many people believe that photographic refractions of light are actually UFOs, or that coincidences are evidence of providence. As Caine says himself during the opening monologue:

“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.”

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It’s not just Borden’s secret that is spelled out to a disbelieving audience – the nature of Angier’s Real Transported Man is also laid bare in the film’s first few scenes.

Granted, the significance of the multiple top hats strewn in the snow in the movie’s opening seconds would be impossible to fathom upon a first viewing, but when David Bowie’s Tesla starts experimenting with that particular item midway through, dots will well and truly have been connected by those who retained this arresting image. Then there’s Cutter’s early conversation with a judge about the Tesla machine – Michael Caine revealing all to a nonetheless sceptical audience:

“It was built by a wizard; a man who can actually do the things a magician pretends to… This has no trick – it’s real.”

Again, our own expectations trip us. We’re watching a Victorian era tale of duelling illusionists, not a science fiction story (or so we believe). Were we a little more open-minded, perhaps we would take Cutter’s proclamations a little more seriously, but that would require us to entertain the notion that this film hinges on the creation of a teleportation device. Re-watching the film knowing that the film does indeed hinge upon the creation of a teleportation device – albeit one that leaves behind a copy (or is it the original?) – makes for a very different viewing experience.

The Prestige Tesla David Bowie

That swerve into the fantastical bothered some audience members at the time; the general consensus among such folk being that the use of ‘real’ magic by way of advanced science was fundamentally silly and undermined the entire film. It’s a perfectly valid complaint, but I wonder how many of the people who had these reactions were under the impression that Tesla’s machine was real? That Cutter was telling the truth when he said that Angier achieved the things that other magicians only pretend to do? My guess is very few. Like me, they were searching for the ‘real’ answer – the trick, the rug-pull, the twist. As it gradually becomes apparent that no such reveal is forthcoming – that the film has fooled us by being honest with us – I can understand that some might have felt irritated, cheated, even.

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But I was delighted that my own expectations had been tampered with to the extent that I had fooled myself. Again, back to that opening monologue:

“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.”

Whether you feel love, hate or indifference towards The Prestige, you can’t deny its honesty.

The Prestige is now available on Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray.