“Are you watching closely?” If there was ever a line of dialogue that more perfectly captures the essence of the film, you’d be hard pressed to find it. Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece The Prestige (2006) opens by asking the audience a question, urging them to pay attention in a way you immediately agree to do as you stare at a pile of top hats in the woods. Yet it’s a promise you can’t keep, as the eye and the mind are distracted by more and more extravagant tricks throughout the duration of this story about two duelling magicians. One is Robert Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, the other is Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale, and The Prestige charts their loves, their losses, and their self-destructive compulsion to outdo each other at every turn … with fatal results.
Yet Nolan constantly reminds the audience to stay attentive, including in this scene with Borden doing something he rarely does: demonstrating how he pulled off a sleight of hand illusion. “Are you watching closely?” he asks the child, repeating the first line and the first word we hear of The Prestige – “are – “ – and we remind ourselves that we need to, that it must be an important mantra as it’s repeated over and over again. Yet the plot accelerates, so do the stakes, and amid the spectacle of the film – and bewitching David Bowie cameos as Nikola Tesla – the bait and switch is once again enacted. Such was the intention of Nolan and his brother Jonathan when it came to adapting Christopher Priest’s award-winning 1995 novel.
In the same way the audience is watching illusions be constructed, deconstructed, and performed, the film itself is an illusion that mimics the key elements of the central illusion with its three-act screenplay: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. As Nolan told Variety in 2006: "It took a long time to figure out how to achieve cinematic versions of the very literary devices that drive the intrigue of the story. The shifting points of view, the idea of journals within journals and stories within stories. Finding the cinematic equivalents of those literary devices was very complex.” One of his most complex films with more than one complex twist in a career comprised of complex films with complex twists, The Prestige works because it’s constantly reminding you that you’re watching a magic trick. In fact, you’re an active participant in it. “Are you watching closely?” Well, are you?
– Maria Lewis