ARTICLE / LONG READ
THE PRESTIGE (Christopher Nolan 2006) follows two obsessive 19th-century magicians, hellbent on discovering each other’s secrets and ultimately sacrificing everything they have to come out on top. However, it is the confusing but brilliant opening that beautifully sets up this premise. In the film’s establishing minutes, we are introduced to three magicians across three scenes, with a voiceover so persuasive we begin to believe everything we see.
We are presented with a vista of top hats, strewn randomly across a forest floor, as a narrator asks: “are you watching closely?”. The scene ends and transitions to an aging man - Cutter (Michael Caine) - showing a little girl the classic, albeit barbaric, magic trick of making a canary disappear. As he performs his trick, he begins to explain the three stages of a magic trick: “the pledge”, “the turn” and, finally, “the prestige”. Each of these stages is further visualised in a scene with the second magician - Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) - performing his trick for a large audience, which includes his foe, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). Of course, none of these images initially make sense. Through these multiple techniques, Nolan expertly sets up the audience to be fooled.
THE PRESTIGE is a deliberately difficult watch; from the unspecified voiceover delivering the opening line to an out-of-context magic trick so eccentric that it is impossible for the audience to feel comfortable. This method is something Warren Buckland, in his 2014 book HOLLYWOOD PUZZLE FILMS, describes as films that try to deceive and manipulate through “fragmented spatio-temporal reality, time loops, a blurring of the boundaries between different levels of reality [...] labyrinthine plots, unreliable narrators and overt coincidences”. Each of what Buckland attributes here is present within the opening minutes of THE PRESTIGE. Yet, it is only when the film is looked at as a whole that this is appreciated. Upon initial viewing, the audience are likely to believe everything they see and will naturally connect each scene together, trying to find a narrative structure where there is none. The vista of top hats, the ambiguous narration and an unidentified drowning man keep the audience guessing and wondering what will happen next. On second viewing, the narrative secrets are all revealed here (something this article explores later), although it is the subject matter of magic and magicians that enables this guessing game; the audience expect to be deceived, something the opening scenes establish from the outset.
WE ARE PRESENTED WITH A VISTA OF TOP HATS, STREWN ACROSS A FOREST FLOOR, AS A NARRATOR ASKS: "ARE YOU WATCHING CLOSELY?
On a DVD extra, Christopher Nolan states how he wanted “people really to be aware of the effect the film is having on them as it’s unfolding before their eyes”. This is something he instantly accomplishes with the beginning of the film. “Are you watching closely?", the statement spoken by an unnamed narrator, is unexpected. As Jonathan Olson notes in his 2015 essay “Nolan’s Immersive Allegories of Filmmaking in INCEPTION and THE PRESTIGE”, the beginning “challenges us (the audience) […] to pay attention to the shot and the film […] it warns us to expect a trick and challenges us to solve it as it begins”. This expectation immediately establishes what the film is trying to achieve; instead of deliberately tricking the audience, the film pulls us in and forces us to watch. Furthermore, the question posed by the unidentified voice adds an air of mystery, leaving the audience in a state of confusion, one that is not corrected until the final act of the film.
Fundamentally, the use of an ambiguous voiceover to open the film offers everything the audience need to know: we are witnessing a magic trick, one that is going to try and fool us. It is up to us, as Nolan points out, “to be aware of the effect the film is having”. However, it is not just the opening line that sets this precedent but it is also evident in Cutter’s dialogue that follows. Stuart Joy, in his essay “The Look on their Faces: Transcending Lack in Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE”, goes as far as to say that it is made clear that “the film’s source of meaning is derived from the overall narration”. In labelling the three acts as “the pledge”, “the turn” and “the prestige”, Cutter explains how a magic trick works. This dialogue presents one singular view, one that the audience is not completely privy to until the final act of the film.
This confusion is heightened by the fact that it is unclear who is being addressed while Cutter speaks. Joy points out that the “combination of the actor’s direct look at the camera, and several explicit references in the narration to an implied spectator as ‘you’” can be seen as a method to lure the audience in. The reassertion of the film world by showing Cutter addressing a court of law at the very end of the sequence highlights the manipulation Nolan is trying to accomplish. It is through the dialogue that he is able to assert the theme of deception, setting the audience up to have multiple interpretations of one particular scene.
THE SUBJECT MATTER OF MAGIC AND MAGICIANS ENABLES THIS GUESSING GAME; THE AUDIENCE EXPECT TO BE DECEIVED.
Cutter repeats his initial speech at the end of the film although this time it ends differently. He exclaims: “you want to be fooled”. It is arguably a line that is not just for the characters but for the audience watching. So much so that Ann Heilmann, in her 2009 article "Doing It with Mirrors: Neo-Victorian Metatextual Magic in AFFINITY, THE PRESTIGE and THE ILLUSIONIST”, labels Nolan a “conjuror". “Like the audience of a stage magician”, Heilmann notes, “we know from the start that it is all an act but judge the quality of the performance by its ability to deceive and mystify us”. From these very first words we are being manipulated. It is Nolan’s desire to make the audience aware of his deception, allowing the film's unconventional narrative structure to thrive. It is a strategy that presents the film as incredibly self-aware. This self-awareness is where Nolan’s film becomes a reflexive piece. Throughout the short sequence, we are shown three timelines. Olson notes that through a “suspension of disbelief”, the audience put all three together, believing that Cutter’s narration is related to what we see on screen. Yet, as Joy summarises, THE PRESTIGE “will inevitably lead viewers to speculate about the ending in a manner that points towards the existence of a truth that extends beyond what is presented onscreen”. Therefore, the film would never satisfy everyone; its themes are complex and interwoven so elegantly that deciphering them demands more than a simple surface reading of the text.
Nolan presents a reality that is manipulated, one that until placed within the context of the whole film, does not make sense and, as Joy claims, “the film foregrounds its own narrative and visual composition through reflexive strategies that expose the sacrifice”. It is this “sacrifice” that the film narrative is based around. The opening shots of Angier’s drowning and the magic trick featuring the little girl play a significant role in the film to come. They are the embodiment of each magician's driving goal: Angier's desire to create the greatest magic trick known to man and Borden’s desire to care for his daughter. This knowledge, acquired by watching the ending of the film, adds a lot more depth to the beginning than initially thought, creating a narrative that is incredibly self-aware. The significance of these events creates a reflexive narrative. It is only upon repeat viewing that the beginning is truly understandable, subsequently bringing new meaning to Cutter’s opening narration. It becomes what Joy describes as the “source of meaning” instead of “the end towards which we are always arriving”. Nolan’s deliberate early use of an unconventional narrative structure, coupled with unreliable and ambiguous narration, is the cornerstone of not only the film, but each of the themes within.
IT IS NOLAN'S DESIRE TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE AWARE OF HIS DECEPTION, ALLOWING THE FILM'S UNCONVENTIONAL NARRATIVE TO THRIVE.