Home / Movie Review: Magic and Loss – The Prestige

Movie Review: Magic and Loss – The Prestige

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"There's a bit of magic in everything and then some loss to even things out." – Lou Reed

Every act of magic consists of three parts: the Pledge, the Turn, and The Prestige. The magician takes the ordinary something, a deck of cards, a bird, or a man, and makes it do something extraordinary. The audience in the theatre needs to see it's indeed real, normal… but it probably isn't. This is the way the pivotal character Harry Cutter (Michael Caine), the engineer who invents complicated tricks to supply the illusionists, opens this "tricky" story about magic, sacrifice, and disappointment, based on a novel of the same name by Christopher Priest and adapted into a screenplay by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. The knot of the plot is about two 19th century magicians whose rivalry turns deadly when a magician performs an ultimate magic trick.

An American magician named Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is married to Julia (Piper Perabo) whose accidental death inside a water tank during a magic session turns him angry at world, specially towards his professional rival, low-class British Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), whom he considers guilty of practicing a Langford knot on Julia which she couldn't slip off underwater.

Director Christopher Nolan is occasionally ambiguous at a moral level about the conflict between self-respect and respect for others, as in his masterpiece Memento (2000). Many viewers of the film complained about the numerous loose ends the story and its twists left, but my advice would be to try to watch closely and re-tie the knot. On the surface it's another of Nolan's defiant puzzles to watch and ponder about, but I made a trip – not literal – to the obsession which haunts the detached Angier, and I finished this pretense accepting something that makes much more sense to me.

Initially I was surprised about the secondary relevance of the female characters: Sarah Borden (British actress Rebecca Hall), Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson) and the aforementioned Mrs. Angier (Piper Perabo) seemed puppets in the deceivers'/magicians' hands, but we must keep in mind the story is set in the Victorian era in Colorado Springs. Still, it was a crude contrast to the male/female power games thrown by Nolan. The women at some points in the film were mere "assistant-dolls" who would passively exhibit themselves and play a supporting role to the "brains", especially Olivia, a flighty butterfly with party-girl manners, comfortable in her roles of mistress and sexual magnet on stage. The innocent Julia's blind trust in the autodidact Alfred's rope strategies resulted in her death, and the goodness of Alfred's wife, Sarah, is destroyed by the malevolence of his genius.

The sci-fi part — when Angier (now auto-nicknamed "The Great Danton" in honour of his deceased wife) meets the eccentric electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and his assistant Alley (Andy Serkis) — was handled in a romantic "H.G. Wells" style, showing us a gloomy forest filled up with duplicated black cats and top-hats, enticing us into a deliberately confusing plot-trap. As Tesla says: "The extraordinary is not permitted in science and industry", and so the magic field should be virgin territory for the purely unknown, and "The world only tolerates a change at a time." But, even surrounded by wise scientific men, Robert Angier has replaced his life for his obsession. And after finding a double for his sessions in Gerald Root, an out-of-work actor, he wants to learn the definitive trick to make him stand out and win over Alfred Borden. Although he knows he will have to risk everything for it, even his dignity, he discovers that's "why every magic trick has a third act. The hardest part. The Prestige."

Meanwhile, lustily intelligent Borden, as he once confessed drunkenly to his tormented wife, "Secrets are my life, Sarah. Our life", has chosen a similar fate to Angier's, living a "double" secret life.

But the ambiguity of Nolan's revelation is as sharp as his magician's minds; pay attention to the painful exchange of dialogue between Alfred and Sarah, when she believed he suffers a split-personality disorder because of his profession and was convinced some days he loved her and other days he didn't, and also exposed in the familiar retelling from Borden's diary stolen by Olivia for her lover, the notebook Angier tries to decipher ("I want the method, not the keyword. I don't even know if the secret is in your notebook").

Both magic stalwarts were two sides of a coin, but Bale's character got ahead ("This is what a good trick costs. Risk. Sacrifice.") and in the end, he wants to prove to us he hasn't been fooled by Angier's platonic ideation of magic: "The audience knows the truth, that the world is simple. Miserable. But you could make them wonder." And my take on the final shot of "The Great Danton" is that he is a projection of Borden's fear that maybe his trick wasn't the best after all.

A key quote from The Prestige: "You want to be fooled because you're looking for the secret but you won't find it because you don't really want to know".

And the key questions of mine would be: Is worth life living without magic? And Is magic worth it without dignity?

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About Elena Gonzalvo

I'm Elena Gonzalvo, a Catalonian freelance writer, and film critic. My favourite genre is Noir. My blogsite is http://jake-weird.blogspot.com
  • With all due respect, why did you give away the entire movie, every single twist? This is supposed to be a review, not a breakdown of the whole plot. I’m glad I had already seen the movie months ago. Otherwise had I read this without seeing it, I would have been furious.

  • A key question of mine is, why ruin the magic of this film for everyone who hasn’t seen it?

  • Revslope

    First of all, Angier is not an American but an Englishman masquerading as an American. Secondly it is only minimally set in Colordo Springs. For the most of the movie it is in London. As for your take on the clone, I think you need to see the movie again, several times.

  • First of all, there is a big “Spoilers” warning, this film was released 4 months ago. Second, I read in another reviews Angier was an American exile: Premiere Review, but I haven’t read the book, and third my take on the clone is my right.

  • First of all, the spoiler was not there when originally posted, so please don’t act disingenuous. And what does the movie only being released four months ago have to do with you willfully ruins the plot for others? Many people wait to see films when they are released on DVD.

    At least, I know to pass on your future articles.

  • I know how to pass on somebody autonamed El Bicho, too. I don’t act disingenuous, some people should chill out (Oh, London!). Revealing the “tricks”(or stripping the spoilers for others) was an exercise of irony in consonance with the leit motif of the film. Many people knew beforehand some of the twists. It was intentional from Nolan.

  • Kendra- As a new writer, if I were you I wouldn’t start anything with a veteran writer like El Bicho. He’s just echoing what I said. As film reviewers, it’s only fair not to reveal spoilers for those who have not seen the film. I personally detest spoilers and go to great lengths to avoid putting them in my reviews. Perhaps the twists were evident in the film to you, but they may not be to some people. A review is meant to help readers decide whether or not to watch/rent a certain movie, not just wax philosophically about it.

    If you really feel the need to discuss important plot points and spoilers, I would recommend adding that spoiler warning in each one of your reviews from now on.

  • “A review is meant to help readers decide whether or not to watch/rent a certain movie, not just wax philosophically about it.”
    With all due respect, Kaonashi, I think a review is meant to decide if a movie is worth watching and ALSO to contemplate the movie philosophically. It’s what I’m interested into, not fighting with hostile commenters.

  • Kendra- Yes, I can definitely see that you enjoy discussing a film on a deeper, philosophical level. I think then, that a spoiler warning for your future reviews is the best solution. That way, those who have seen the film can comment and discuss your review and your views, while those who haven’t seen the film will know to avoid reading your article.

    There’s a great website I found in which the writers do two reviews of a film. The first time they watch the movie they write a more traditional review, without revealing anything, but the second time they watch it they do an in-depth analysis. It’s called Alternate Takes. It’s a good read. Hell, you may wish to contribute to them as well 🙂

  • Thanks for your advices and for the link, Kaonashi, I’ll check it out.

  • Thanks for your advices and for the link, Kaonashi, I’ll check it out.

  • Yes, you were acting disingenuous. Claiming “there is a big “Spoilers” warning,” when you know full well the review was initially posted without one, and an editor had to add it after the fact.

    My time around here shouldn’t impede anyone from starting anything with me, but be prepared to make your case. Kaonashi is relatively new and she makes the exact same argument I do, though hers is better written.

    The commentors wouldn’t be hostile if you didn’t spoil the movie. Your attitude that the setting doesn’t matter doesn’t give the reader any confidence. If you can’t get the easy stuff right, why should they trust your philosophical contemplations? Many people did not know the twists beforehand.

  • I haven’t said the setting doesn’t matter (it was obvious London is the metropolis where both magicians look for triumph), and when I write a review, I didn’t mind it contained spoilers or not, I don’t write by those parameters, I didn’t know the politics of Blogcritics either, thanks to El Bicho I am learning all these rules in “the hard way”. But, please, El Bicho, forget me. Don’t obsess so much, you could end like Angier.

  • Jeff


    I just saw the movie tonight for the first time, so I’m sure I missed a lot, BUT:

    Did you ever consider that there may have been no actual clones at all?

    For example, is it possible that the “fake twin” Roux/Angier that drowned was a only “plant” designed to lure Borden to Angier’s show, so that the could be framed for the ‘murder’ of ‘Angier’ who was really Roux (not a clone).

    It was unncessary for a clone to die every night; only for Roux, to die once, when Borden was in attendance, to convict him of the ‘murder’ of Angier.

    The vats, boxes, etc., were all a ruse to raise interest / disinformation about the Transporting, and bait to cause obsessive curiosity on Borden’s part, to lure him into his entrapment.

    The Tesla machine was just a noisy distraction to cover the substitution of the Angier ‘non-twins’ Roux and Angier ? Roux’ putative drunkenness, unreliability, duplicity, and so on was just a Ruse (ROUX?—clue here?) to lead Borden on? anything he laid on the other team was for disinformation??

    The ‘hats and rabbits duplication’ was nothing more than a Tesla deception to keep the investment coming. Once Angier realized that he had been ‘had’, he realized, nonetheless, its smoke-and-mirrors value in putting on a ‘show’ to cover the substitution of the Roux look-alike.

    Just because rabbits and hats appeared in a meadow does not mean they were transported; perhaps they were only put there by Teslas assistant(s).

    In other words, did we ever actually see ‘dead clones’ except the one which may have been Roux, deliberately drowned by Angier, to frame Borden?

    Barton’s twin may have allowed or substituted himself to be hung, to atone for the death of his ‘own’ wife?

    Barton shoots Anjier because Anjier has engineered Barton’s brother’s death by hanging; not merely to upstage him with the brilliance of HIS deception?

    [Who would give their twin brother up to just prove such a point?]

    The repeated memories and flashbacks of ‘Anjier’ drowning in the tank do not represent the nightly drowning of clones for every performance, but a personalization, driven by guilt, of his own wife’s drowning? Along with a recounting of the actual drowning of the Roux bait-dupe?

    Can anyone REALLY say that the corpse images which were ‘flashed on’ were anything but leftovers from the morgue or Potter’s field, used to entice Fallon/Barton into jeopardy for the murder of Roux (Ruse?) who was an ‘expendable’ leaving Anjier surviving to gloat over his handiwork in framing Barton?

    Like I say, I just saw it tonight for the first time, very late, but that was my take? Comments ?

  • “The repeated memories and flashbacks of ‘Anjier’ drowning in the tank do not represent the nightly drowning of clones for every performance, but a personalization, driven by guilt, of his own wife’s drowning?”

    This is a valuable (and original) point you have brought out here, Jeff, I think guilt is a great driving force in some of Nolan’s characters (the most frightening example could be “Memento”), and it’s very possible that the duplicating engine and the supposed clones created belong to the fantasy tale (within the real story) which we would prefer to believe above the facts, because “we don’t really want to know”.

  • Katie

    Ok, don’t know if anyone is even reading this still, but in response to Jeff-
    The movie shows us that the machine really did clone people because it flashes back to when Angier first uses the machine and then shoots the clone of himself that it produced. But I actually like your take on it better because I really hated the whole clone thing ending.

  • Taylor

    Jeff you are on target – but not 100%

    I’m loving the fact that you are thinking outside the box and not going the direction 90% of people go after they’ve seen this. Think about this though. Who is speaking and narrating throughout the movie. The narrator of this movie is EXTREMELY important.

    For example – a lot of what we learn comes from Angier’s or Borden’s diaries. And both of these diary’s were created for the EXPRESS reason of deceiving the other person. This much is obvious. So, why would we trust everything that is said there to us as well?

    For example – when we learn of Angier’s dealings with Tesla to create for him a cloning machine we learn of it from Angier’s diary. And obviously Angier wants Borden to believe that the machine works. When we see Angiers “cloning himself” for the first time and killing his “cloned twin” Angiers is the narrator. Angiers is telling Borden what happened when he first used the machine. Angier’s number one goal is to beat Borden and finalize the ultimate magic trick for an audience of one (Borden – and some would say, us the viewing audience.) So obviously he is lying to Borden. It has nothing to do with Guilt. Nothing to do with his psyche. It’s all out war and Angiers is willing to do anything to win.

    If, when you watch this movie again, you pay attention to who is speaking and who is telling the story you will see that this is very important to the veracity of the story being told.

    As a side editorial comment I find it almost humorous as to how many people blindly accept an impossibility just because we are told it is so. Don’t they realize that we are told to watch closely? Don’t they realize that the movie itself is a magic trick and we the audience are blindly accepting the impossible result just as magic trick audiences want to be fooled as well?

    Again, really good catch Jeff. I had the same thing hit me after my first viewing and every subsequent viewing has just confirmed it more and more.


  • Mily

    I am sorry, but you are right to certain degree but you have to watch the movie again and until the very end of it. At the end, they show the 100 water boxes with the 100 clones of Angier. So, he obviously killed HIMSELF every night because he was the one going to die and the prestige was his clone and he never knew if he was going to be cloned next time, the last time he just never appeared as prestige, he just ran away so Alfred could be blame for his “death”, he killed himself 100 times because it was too painful to think that he was pretty much committing suicide after the show but he kept all his clones. I hope this helped, I watched the movie again and did some research. Just watch again.

  • “At the end, they show the 100 water boxes with the 100 clones of Angier”.

    It’s up to the viewer to considerate literally the clones as real duplications of Angier, but thank you for your research, Mily. I’ll watch the film again and maybe I see it clearer.