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The Prestige Movie Review (9.5/10)

Posted on May 13th, 2007 filed in Movie Reviews    |   

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Borden (Christian Bale) and Angier are stunt assistants for famed magician Milton, whose illusion ‘Ingenieur’ is wizz Cutter (Michael Caine). A freak stage accident results in the drowning death of Milton’s stage girl and Angier’s wife, Julia (Piper Perabo). Angier blames her death on Borden having tied her hands with a stronger than usual rope knot.

The two men part ways and engage on separate stage magic careers. Borden meets and marries Sarah and becomes a father following the birth of their daughter, Jess. Angier , eternally miserable and obsessed by his wife’s premature death, crashes Borden’s Magic show by sabotaging his ‘Stop the Bullet trick’ and causing him to lose three of his fingers.

Angier teams up with Cutter and starts a magic show of his own only to have that destroyed in turn by Borden. The rivalry and animosity between the two continues unabated. When Borden unveils ‘The Transported Man’, his teleportation masterpiece, he wins the London crowd and amazes the ever obsessed Angiers leading that latter to declare an all out effort to unveil the ‘Transporter’ secret and engineer a better illusion.


‘The Prestige’ is the screen adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel and another directorial masterpiece by Chris Nolan adding to this ever impressive portfolio that includes ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘Memento’. Nolan excels with a tightly knit presentation where every scene matters and where every line contributes to the story. The result is 130 minutes of smart entertainment and a film that deserves multiple viewings and a part of one’s permanent DVD collection.

The cast is solid overall and most impressive with Michael Caine as Cutter. His work this year (The Prestige and Children of Men) is among his best. Christian Bale on his second feature with director Nolan delivered quite a performance, yet, I still can’t think of him outside ‘American Psycho’. The female roles are a bit marginal including Scarlett Johansson and do not really impact the movie.

The movie theme is set dramatically from the beginning: A drowning man, a charge of murder, a drowning woman, rivalry and obsession, and of course, illusions. Are you watching closely?

We are told that:

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called ‘The Pledge’. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called ‘The Turn’ . The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. 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. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige’.

Later on, we see Borden teaching Sarah’s nephew how to do a coin trick:

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.

and that’s mainly because, as we become aware after learning about the bird cage and bullet stopping tricks,

The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.

Armed with that knowledge about the make-believe, The Prestige turns itself into the ultimate illusion and spreads itself into three parts. But more about that a bit down. Let’s look in detail about some themes and characters.

Themes and Characters

Borden is a devout and supremely talented magician loyal to his craft. From the very beginning, he observes how the chinese magician awes with his massive-power-theatrics mostly by fooling his audience into believing that he is so frail . He observes how he plays his role in his normal life outside the theater and how that act takes over who he actually is 24 hours a day.

Borden, from the beginning, claims to have a big magical trick in his bag that London is not ready for it yet. He will unveil it only when he is ready and when the time is right. We get a preview however about his Human-Transporter early on when he walks Sarah home and clearly leaves down the stairs only to show up within a second inside Sarah’s apartment.

Hiding an identical twin eternally is no simple feat and reflects the level of dedication and commitment of the Bordens. When Borden is asked by Angier about Julia’s death, he would always state that he does not know whether Julia’s knot was the harder or standard one. That is mainly because his twin was the one that tied the knot (They were alternating days on Milton theater) and he never disclosed what really happened to his brother. In that regard, Borden was truthful in his answer. So each of the twins living half-of-two-lives was taking place from the early days simulating the chinese magician. Their hardest task undoubtedly was keeping this secret from Sarah, Olivia, and Jess and that’s quite an amazing feat.

The Bordens commitment and dedication also manifests itself with Borden-2 cutting off his fingers following the accident suffered by his twin during the botched ‘Stop the Bullet’ incident. But while they look the same and switch physical roles daily, one as Borden and the other as his assistant Fallon, they of course are not the same emotionally and psychologically and have their own likes and dislikes. Borden-1 loves Sarah and is the father of Jess. Borden-2 loves Olivia. Each twin will spend half of his time with each of the women part of being half Borden and half Fallon. That’s not completely true however even from pure objective and non-emotional points of view. When Sarah tells Borden-2 she is pregnant, his immediate reaction is the need to let Fallon know, making it clear that he has no doubt his brother is the actual father, and so it is understood that sexual intimacy was not a shared activity.

But emotions are dangerous ground and the setting is a disaster inevitably bound to happen. Thus Sarah is driven to despair mostly because she can’t figure out how one day her hubby loves her and is kind and the other he does not and is cold and cruel ‘Do you love me?’ she asks, ‘Today no’ Borden-2 answers reflecting how the twins were always truthful to both Sarah and Olivia despite their big ‘Secret’ afact that did not play in favor of their relationships. And after Sarah’s tragic death, when Borden-2 shares with Olivia that he never loved Sarah, she sees him as very cruel and runs away. She was happy being his mistress but could not take his being inhuman. Yet relationship and personal sacrifice are an unavoidable price to pay in the quest for glory and the Bordens are willing to pay it despite the fact that there was never any deceit or infidelity. Towards the end, Borden-1 declares to Angiers when asked about Sarah and Olivia ‘We each loved one of them. I loved Sarah. He loved Olivia. We each had half of a full life, really, which was enough for us. But not for them. See, sacrifice, Robert, That’s the price of a good trick.’

On a side note, the Bordens also cannot be construed as evil in the literary meaning of the word. Julia drowning was accidental and the harder knot was made with her consent (evidenced by her nodding her head when Borden looked at her ). Their relationships are marked by the need to keep their secret not really any intent to betray. Their secret is their livelihood and glory and returns major dividends on their loved ones as well. It thus must be protected at any price. Borden-2 tells Fallon in his jail cell (I’m sorry. I’m sorry for a lot of things. I’m sorry about Sarah. I didn’t mean to hurt her… I didn’t. I never intended to hurt Sarah and I am so sorry for that’) and thus the relationship damage that ensued was incidental not intentional. Finally in that regard, when Borden-2 was inspecting the stage and saw Angier drowning in the water tank, he did his best to save him, an obvious reflection of his natural instincts.

It is Borden-2 that is hanged for the murder of Angier. This is noted by him apologizing to his twin for having led to Sarah’s suicide. Borden-1 then, with the help of Cutter, kills Angier and reclaims Jess. He also pointedly asks him then, to live ‘fully’ as one instead of half of two.

Angier has his own long standing secret as well. He is in fact Lord Caldlow, a secret that only Julia, his wife, knows (This puts into perspective the whole thing about ‘The Great Danton’ stage name she chooses for him stating that it was ’sophisticated’. This secret however was, unlike that of Borden, not originally kept for the sake of some super trick but rather to save his family from embarrassment because of his chosen stage career. Barring that, it ended up as the joker card that Angier played till the very end on Borden and that allowed him to score the final blow. After all, Borden aimed from ‘Tesla’ nothing more than a wild goose chase that would take away Angier’s time and money, and eventually lead to his financial ruins. Furthermore, it would remove Angier from the London magic stage which now will be dominated by Borden. Little did he know that Angier has significant financial resources and that his encounter with Tesla will result in Angier’s glory and Borden’s fatal demise.

Angier also adored Julia and was mentally and emotionally damaged by her drowning. He would immerse his head underwater just to get a glimpse of what drowning means. When his obsession both with Julia’s loss and Borden’ role in it, completely takes over, he masterminds his Grand Illusion by ‘drowning’ himself each night.

Angier is also the more evil and brutal of the two magicians. He showed intent to not only destroy Borden’s career but also take away his life. It was his intent to kill Borden during the ‘Stop the Bullet’ trick. He killed every night one of his clones and orchestrated his Master Trick Finale to frame Borden for murder leading to the latter hanging. He did that with significant planning and cold blood knowing that his actions will result in Jess orphanage among other sequelae.

Cutter initially teams up with Algier following Julia’s death yet gets a change of heart the moment he realizes the extent of him being manipulated by Angier into giving a testimony that will erroneously lead to Borden’s hanging and death and to Jess losing her father. He then teams up with Fallon (Borden-1) and leads him to where Algier is. We note his nod as Fallon enters Angier’s clone tomb letting the latter know that Algier is alone inside. The subsequent encounter between Borden and Angier alludes to the fact that Cutter by then had already shared with Borden all that he knew about Angier’s trick (he saw all these drowned ‘Angiers’ and their water containers).

The Tesla Machine

Angier was manipulated by Borden to head to Colorado seeking Tesla, one of the greatest scientists of the time (He actually is behind significant discoveries in the fields of electromagnetism that the strength of a magnet is measured today in Tesla. Most MRI machines for example have magnets the strength of which vary from o.18 to 1.5 Tesla). With his money, he gets Tesla to create the ultimate cloning machine, the operation of which results in one exact clone created within 20 feet.

Tesla warns however that the machine may not work as expected and advises Algier to dispose of it as it will only bring him misery (But have you ‘really’ considered the ‘Cost’ he asks Angier after the latter tells that money is not an issue) . These warnings never eluded Angier’s who in his early testing of the machine, kept a gun by his side so that in case something goes wrong, like a deformity or incapacitation of any kind, he’ll have the option of ending his life.

The clones created are identical in every single aspect up to the second of their creation. In other words, once a clone is created, there is no more Angier and clone but rather 2 replicas of the same person. During the early tests, Angier kills the clone at the protest of the latter (‘No, no, wait, I’m not…’) making it clear that both killer and victim are identical. In other words, Angier lives on irrespective who is killed and who goes on stage for ‘The Prestige’.

Furthermore, and as noted from Tesla experiments with the hat and cat, the subject at the center of the machine remains in place and a clone shows up few feet apart. In other words, what is at the center of the machine is the origin and the other is the copy.

Angier’s Grand Illusion

Angier devised a plan that would get him glory, and have him score the final win in his battle against Borden. He would go into that machine each night, get a clone created at the prestige while he would die drowning. The underwater death factor while not necessary for the machine function, is crucial for his plan to work.

First, It would allow him to quickly and conveniently get rid of one his now two existing and identical copies. Those in task of disposing the bodies are blind and thus unaware of the murder taking place each night. The container and its submerged body is loaded onto a truck each night and lead to Angier’s ‘storage place’. No guns, no blood, just a matter of transport.

Second, it is essential for his plot against Borden. Angier knew that it was only a matter of time before Borden sneaks his way under stage having no idea that each step is leading him to his own demise. The lock on the tank is genuine and it is impossible for Borden to succeed in rescuing the drowning man in time leading to his murder charge and subsequent hanging. This is of particular importance knowing that this tank is identical to Julia’s and so will undoubtedly confuse Borden and further lead to his conviction at trial.

Third, he would end his life each day the way his Julia lost hers, by drowning. He cherishes his life however and counts on continuing to live through his clone. Yet he understood the risks involved namely the potential of a machine malfunction leading to no clone creation and him facing a final irreversible death. Towards the end and following his getting shot, he tells Borden ‘It took courage. 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’. If all goes well, he’s at the prestige and no one knows of the man in the box. Otherwise, there will only be a drowned man.

Additional care was taken by Angier to make sure that his clone takes the prestige following his his first teleportation illusion frustration under stage while his impersonator took in the glory.

End of Themes and Characters

So back to where I described this movie as the ultimate illusion story with its own three components:
The Pledge (Ordinary)M/font>: Borden watches Angier drowning and is sentenced for hanging

The Turn (Extraordinary): Tesla Machine created a clone of Angier so in reality he is still alive. (Tesla tells Angier in his note attached to the machine ‘The truly extraordinary is not permitted in science and industry.Perhaps you’ll find more luck in your field, Where people are happy to be mystified’)

The Prestige: Starts with Abracadabra uttered by Borden while being hanged then appearing seconds later.

Priest and Nolan, and contrary to magician’s wisdom, end up, disclosing the big secret to us. And as always, it is simple. But it is also brilliant. And despite our being aware of it, we can’t help but clap and clap for these two on a job fabulously done and a movie that is easily among the top 100 of the best movies ever made.

Final notes:

The crushed bird cage mirrors both Borden’s and Angier’s ultimate prestige namely Borden’s hanging and his twin showing up at Angier’s storage place as well as Angier’s drowning and his clone appearing 20 feet later. The endless supply of pigeons in Borden’s lab closely resemble the seemingly endless supply of drowned Angiers in the storage facility.

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5 Responses to “The Prestige Movie Review (9.5/10)”

  1. Raoul Says:

    I totally agree you cannot help but clap…Loved this movie, although the punch line or ‘Prestige’ is so simple it actually surprised me, in that it makes sense but it did not even occur to me, I really did not expect it and that is the essential ingredient of a great story….an atypical ending, that makes sense of all the events throughout the movie, entertains us, spooks us, makes us think and leaves us with the feeling “My God, why didn’t I guess it earlier” ….

    The Prestige is indeed a smart movie with a great cast

  2. Sabrina Says:

    Christian Bale is totally amazing in this movie!!! I am usually a huge fan of the Australian hunk ‘Hugh Jackman” but he was totally overshadowed by the youth and strong presence of Christian Bale…. I first saw him in Batman, and he was also the stuff action heroes are made of, when he does his morning push-ups and shows off his ripped and muscular body….say no more!!!!! He is equally impressive in the role of a struggling magician with a secret that is so well hidden, it even impresses the smartest of us!

  3. Sabrina Says:

    Interesting point you raise. Is Angier really the more evil and more brutal of the two magicians? In fact, throughout most of the movie, I felt sympathy for Angier and felt as if Borden was the more confident and stronger one, the one that is willing to get his hands dirty. In fact, didn’t Cutter get Angier a new trick about the bird where as he requested, he did not have to ‘get his hands dirty’… But it his sadness after the death of his wife, that turned into vengeance and hatred towards Borden, and progressively became an obsession that took over his life, his entire existence…and so he became the one with no regards to anything except ruining Borden at all cost, even if it meant he got his hands dirty….

    Also is Borden really a nice guy like you are insinuating? He kept a deep dark secret away from his own wife and you cannot say that he was honest only because some days he confessed that he loved her more than other days, he was dishonest with her in that he tricked into thinking that it was always the same person, with different attitudes whereas it was two different people and that is pure evil!!! In fact it drove her to commit suicide. And even tough they were different emotionally and psychologically, since they shared the same life, I am convinced that they even shared women on an intimate level…

  4. Helen Says:

    What I like about your reviews, is that not only are they very well though of, but you always give us little facts that I find very interesting. When I saw ‘The Prestige’, I was naturally fascinated by this fictional Tesla machine that recreates an identical clone of objects and even people as well…but I thought is was the complete work of the writer’s imagination, it is really interesting to know that Tesla is actually a real scientist who has majorally affected the electromagnetic field and Tesla is actually a measuring unit in those infamous MRI machines that we have all experienced or at least seen on ER, House and Grey’s Anatomy… very cool!!!

  5. Joe Says:

    I am not sure I agree with you in that it is Angier’s clone that lives on and the original one that drowns every night. Although your analysis makes sense, the way I understood it when he says towards the end of the movie that “It took courage. 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”…is that he took a big risk of being the one drowning but so far he has managed to be the one at the prestige and thus surviving to be present in front of Borden with all his hatred and spite…At least I left the theater with that impression….

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