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Abracadabra: "The Prestige" brings real magic to the big screen

"Are you watching closely?"

From the opening phrase to the closing image, The Prestige is a film that requires the viewer to keep that question in the forefront of his or her mind at all times.

Set in London at the turn of the 20th century, The Prestige is a tale of dueling magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), an American expatriate in search of his dream of succeeding at stage magic, complete with roaring crowds and public adulation, and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), a poor Londoner who performs for the enjoyment and income rather than hopes of grandeur.

A tragedy about two gifted men who, but for their jealousy and hatred toward one another, could be the greatest magicians of their age. The Prestige's plot, though simple enough on its surface, is rife with twists and temporal shifts, and nothing is what it seems, be it people, events, or relationships.

The men's onetime friendship is turned by tragedy into a dangerous game of obsession, sabotage and one-upmanship, and one of the movie's many shocks is that, when it comes to the main characters, there really is no black and white, no "protagonist" – there are only shades of gray, which vary from event to event.

The film opens with Cutter (Michael Caine), an ingenuer – a man who makes the tools magicians use for their illusions – performing a trick for a young girl, while in voiceover explaining:
Every great magic trick consists of three acts. The first act is called “The Pledge.” The magician shows you something ordinary – but of course, it probably isn't.

The second act is called “The Turn.” The magician makes this ordinary something do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret – but you won’t find it, because you don’t really want to see it.

Now, anybody can make something disappear. The real trick, though, is bringing it back again.

That’s why there's a third act, called “The Prestige.” This is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance – and you see something shocking that you've never seen before.
Beyond simply describing a trick, Cutter here is instructing the audience in how to watch the film – for it in itself is structured much like that great magic trick of which he speaks. Every detail must be watched, and watched correctly, for, in The Prestige, the devil is very much in the details, and in the nuance.

The grudge between Angier and Borden builds throughout their unfortunate but mutually-extended relationship, growing to such a degree that personal achievement in magic becomes almost secondary in importance not only to sabotaging each other’s performances, but to inflicting physical damage and injury upon each other and, by extension, upon those around them, as well.

The rivalry grows when Borden performs an illusion which is so astounding that it drives Angier into a fit of total obsession with finding out how it is performed. Committed to discovering the secret whatever the cost, Angier travels to Colorado Springs, in search of scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), whom he believes can assist in replicating the trick

Both instruction and plotline clue, Tesla’s question to Angier regarding the possibility of helping him – “Have you considered the cost?” – is one of many double-entendres in the film, and reflects a deeper meaning and significance to their actions, methods, and desires which neither of the feuding magicians manages to comprehend.

A brain-teaser that makes the viewer actively engage with the story and try to penetrate its elegant sleight-of-hand, The Prestige offers just enough clues to make some twists recognizable and predictable – while, through this, blinding the audience to other, far bigger surprises. Though not seen chronologically, the film reflects a screenwriter’s version of the three parts of Cutter’s great magic trick – from the setup, through the amazing event (or, in this case, series of events), and culminating in the even more amazing conclusion, where characters may or may not be who they appear, where the viewer’s sight and memory are called into question, and where even something as final as death may not be what it seems.

Rich in theme and cinematography and delightfully acted, The Prestige brings to the screen the same type of act – and trust – that stage magic offers. The audience’s compact with the magician – the agreement to believe in something that seems impossible, and the acknowledgement that, while there is the desire to know how a trick is accomplished, finding out would be a disappointment – is simultaneously as crucial to the success of the film as it is to a magician’s act, and as involuntarily given by the film’s audience as it is my a live audience at a magic show. As Borden says in the film, “The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.”

And the tricks involved in this film, from Pledge, to Turn, to the Prestige itself, are both deep and dazzling, and the finale has the potential to shock viewers, impress them – or leave them scratching their heads. Missed clues will certainly be sought for; a rethinking of almost everything that was seen is inevitable.

However, like a good magic trick, the answer – as far-fetched or as mundane as it may be – is right before your eyes the whole time. You merely have to watch closely – and you have to really want to see it.


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