“Are you watching closely?”
In 2006 my view of film was changing dramatically. I had just stepped into the world of classic cinema, coming from liking blockbuster movies that didn’t really require much thinking, much thought after the fact, movies were just movies to me. I then discovered films such as The Godfather, Goodfellas, On the Waterfront, and Raging Bull. I was maturing as a viewer, consuming a different type of entertainment. It wasn’t until I saw The Prestige, however, that the way I viewed films was changed forever.
Once I finished watching Nolan’s tale of rival magicians, I realised for the first time that film could contain something more, something behind what was presented, that cinema could be tricky, devious, that a piece of drama could lead you in one direction and then pull the rug out from under your feet the very next. In 2006 I realised what I liked, what I wanted from a movie experience. For the first time I knew that a director, a writer, could orchestrate deceptively from behind the scenes, and that the person making this particular film was very clever indeed, much smarter than me.
I was left scratching my head, with a grin from ear to ear after Alfred Borden (Bale) made his big reveal towards the end of the film. I knew I had just seen something very special, something that I enjoyed very much. The moment when Borden is about to be hung, seemingly at the bottom of the barrel, with no way out, the moment where he delivers his final words, “Abracadabra”, before pulling back the curtain in front of the audience’s very eyes, along with those of his fierce on screen rival Angier (Jackman), and then dismantling his enemy’s world in the space of ten seconds, was pure magic. I was tricked. Angier was tricked. We were all deceived by not one but two illusionists, two kings of deception: Alfred Borden and Christopher Nolan.
The film boasts a wonderful cast, much like all of Nolan’s films, and much like in these past movies, many familiar faces appear, but it is the chemistry and the enigmatic battle of personalities between Bale and Jackman that set the film on fire, bringing the script that was so deftly written to life. This whole film is a con, one long magic trick. Nolan even has the audacity to tell us that he is playing a fast one on us twice at the start of the film, yet none of us believed him, we weren’t willing to see what was right in front of our eyes. The very first words spoken by Alfred Borden, “Are you watching closely?”, surely should have been a warning. Or it at least should have been when Michael Caine’s senior magician explains how the trick works, explaining in relative detail what is about to happen to all of us: “It’s not enough to make something disappear; you have to bring something back.” It was all there, all ready for us to unpack, but we weren’t ready, none of us were expecting to be duped so expertly by tricksters at the top of their game.
Once the events of the film had somewhat settled in over the coming days and weeks, I knew where my future taste in films would lie. I started seeking out similar works, including Nolan’s very own Memento, another masterwork of misrepresentation and one of the finest accounts of unreliable narration in film history. Because of Nolan’s work on The Prestige, I was turned onto such classics as Mulholland Drive and The Usual Suspects. I had found my wheelhouse; I knew what I wanted from a film. I wanted to think, I wanted to be shown something that might not be quite what it seems, I wanted to be shown something that mirrors the way real life behaves, the way things aren’t always clear, that sometimes what is right before your eyes is the last thing you see. I wasn’t watching closely before I saw The Prestige, but I am now.
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