The Prestige: Spoilers Ahoy!
I watched the Prestige recently for a second time. When I first saw it, it was in the cinema without the benefit of a pause/rewind button and also without subtitles, which I have a preference for. Now that I’ve seen it again, I’ve picked up on new subtleties and in fact changed my view of the protagonists totally.
Stop here if you don’t want to ruin the film for yourself because half the fun is working the film out first time round.
At first glance, Angier is the most sympathetic of the two main characters. He lost his wife due to a huge error of judgement by Borden. Initially I viewed both protagonists and the events that followed through that prism and in that light, Angier is definitely the more sympathetic character which makes the ending something of a bum note.
Before anything sours between the two leads, they study a Chinese magician, Ching Ling Foo, to work out how he does his trick of making a goldfish bowl disappear. Borden understands immediately how it was done while Angier tries to get his head around the level of sacrifice required to make the trick work. Interestingly, Ching Ling Foo is based upon a real character who had a very real rivalry with Chung Ling Soo (American of Scottish descent) and that rivalry inspired the novel by Priest. Chung Ling Soo later died when a bullet catch trick went badly wrong.
That tragic drowning of Angier’s wife is followed up by a “catch the bullet” trick that goes badly wrong when Angier ends up pointing a loaded gun at Borden and demanding to know what knot was tied. Instead of losing his life, Borden loses only his fingers thanks to the intervention of Fallon, his engineer.
This feud escalates further when Angier resumes his career as “the Great Dante” and Borden sabotages a trick causing injury to a participant in the trick. At this point, the feud is about spite but things take a turn for the darker soon after when Borden launches an outstanding new trick called “the Transported Man”.
Angier is obsessed with learning the secret of Borden’s trick, which he describes as the best he has ever seen. While pickling himself green with envy, he has his own competing show where he comes up with his own version of “the Transported man”. Angier then uses his superior showmanship to augment the trick but his obsession with the source of Borden’s trick causes him to step up the feud and it’s here that things really go off the rails. Up until then, Angier had been primarily motivated by bitterness at losing his wife but here it becomes clear that it’s the source of Borden’s trick that fuels his obsession. Sending his assistant to spy on Borden has disastrous repercussions as Borden leads him on a wild goose chase to Arizona as well as scuppering Angier’s show (and laming him in the process).
The first time I watched the film, I knew there was something odd about Fallon but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Eims was faster off the mark and realised that Fallon was wearing a disguise of some sort. It was my second time seeing the film but her first so I kept my mouth shut in case I ruined the twist for her.
Once you’ve seen the big reveal, you realise the level of sacrifice required to pull off the “transported man” trick and it does change your perceptions of the two key characters. Angier is strictly speaking the most sympathetic character but his obsession with bettering Borden’s trick and trapping him with a murder charge bring him to a very dark place. What of Borden? In the process of maintaining the necessary illusion, he risks the sanity of those nearest him. The film doesn’t give us any clue as to how Borden/Fallon dealt with Sarah’s death and in this, it manipulates our perceptions just as much as the magicians do with their audiences. On the other hand, Angier’s tragedies are there for us to see & gloss over. You are effectively hoodwinked into sympathising with one character over the other through selective telling of the story. It’s only at the end with Borden collecting his daughter from Cutter that you realise that Nolan has been just as poker-faced with reality as his two leads. How are we supposed to sympathise with a character who sacrificed his wife in order to preserve the “trick”? How can we be satisfied with a film that ends with the death of the guy we had been rooting for and the “bad guy” stomping all over him?
I can’t and I suspect that’s the point of the film. We’re meant to be uneasy with the resolution and consider it. It’s in the consideration that we pick up the finer details but still reach the same conclusion.
The Prestige is a superb film to watch once and digest but later you should watch it again and see do you reach the same conclusions as you did first time and question where the moral weight lies. You probably will stick with your original conclusions but how many films make you think like that nowadays. Enjoy & treasure this gem!