How far would you go for your art? What is enough and who's reception do you seek? For what purpose? There is rivalry, there is obsession, and ultimately, there is sacrifice.
Alfred Borden walks onto the gallows, his last footsteps over the wooden platform, provide for him, the audible announcement of death. He will hang for a crime he is innocent of. And although his last words are a set of syllables that conjunctively make up the magician's command, "abracadabra," he dies.
As you watch The Prestige, if you are at all an artist or creator of one sort or another, you will immediately recognize and identify yourself in these characters. You sympathize with their obsessions and reflect on your own sacrifices for the benefit of that which our Grasp desires to exceed, Imagination. It is this imagination that drives us to creation, and creation in turn strives for perfection.
We are possessed by our need to creatively express and just as important, to be understood. After all, expression is communication and every creation states or reveals to some degree, the mind of its creator. The magic in The Prestige is actively part of the story's narrative, allowing for magic on the stage to set the backdrop for the psychological drives of the protagonists. By this condition, magic graduates to further, subjective or metaphoric terms. Magic is then any form of art or expression, and the magicians, the expressionists.
Robert Angier walks onto the stage before a sold out theatre, each seat occupied for the sole purpose of being entertained by him. He feels their applause and senses their attention, eyes pregnant with wonder, lips parted with a breath not quite ready to escape. In the machine that has made him the best magician in England, he stands. Not knowing what awaits him, a standing ovation or a water tank. In fact, he knows very well that it is actually both that await him. In a matter of a second, he is both standing above his audience and below them. Up towards him, an ascension of cheers, as below he cannot see them, barely are their claps audible, and after his underwater bow, which is no more than a series of struggling jerks and spasms, he dies.
Reoccurring themes of both Christopher and Jonathan Nolan are obsession and duality. Brought on screen by such acclaimed works as Memento, The Dark Knight, and of course, The Prestige. What Memento did for obsession, The Dark Knight did for duality. I feel The Prestige achieves a balance between obsession and duality. Interestingly enough, this median is reflected by the coincidence that The Prestige is The Nolan Brothers' collaboration that, filmographically speaking, stands between Memento and The Dark Knight.
In The Prestige, I sense a personal reference to filmmaking. I also sense in the relationship of Alfred Borden and well, his brother Alfred Borden, a tie to the collaboration between The Nolan Brothers. The film itself is their magic trick, the three-act screenplay is even based on the three elements of the illusion. Angier's showmanship is echoing of a director's need to marvel the eyes of moviegoers, while Borden's boldness and discipline is the spirit of innovation and self-indulging experimentation.
Borden was indeed the natural magician, he was also selfish, as he perfected his craft more for himself than for his audience. The fact that Borden also had a natural double (a twin) reinforced such identification of being the natural, organic performer. This is contrasted by Angier's high-class showsmanship and supernatural clones. This divergence of style, also gives the protagonists different sets of obsessions. Borden is obsessed with being the best magician, ironically his best trick requires he be, instead, one-half of just that. Angiers is obsessed rather, with being the best performer. He simultaneously is also obsessed with authenticity, his early attempts at Borden's Transported Man were never satisfactory to him; as they weren't as Borden had performed them. Borden's obsession, on the other hand, is wrapped in secrecy and deception in order to maintain his place as best magician. This taxes his individuality; he has to share a life, including a wife and mistress. However, secrets are Borden's powers, it is only too apparent the insult paid when Angier, finally revealed as Lord Caldlow, tears Borden's secret without disclosing it, devaluing its worth. Regardless of the cost, the secret kept inflates the illusion's worth. Borden knows this when he informs Sarah's nephew that the secret impresses no one, or when Sarah is explained how the bullet catch is performed, Borden needs to quickly refurnish the unavoidable dangers of such a trick when she mocks the secret's obviousness. Ultimately, what Borden practices is that, illusions require illusions.
This, Angier states, he could never do, lead a false life...later on, when he first duplicates himself, Angier's instinct is immediately to kill the clone, as naturally he could not share the stage. This is where Angier's selfishness manifests, on the stage he must be the only recipient of the applause. "No one cares about the man in the box." What's also interesting to note here is, that every time Angier performs his perfected version of The Transported Man he is committing suicide. As with Mr. Alley's cat in Tesla's Colorado lab, the subject is cloned but the clone appears at a farther distance from the subject, which remains unchanged in appearance or location. On stage, the original subject, Angier, is dropped into the water tank under the stage, while a new clone appears elsewhere in the vicinity. This must be in part, why Angier books a final, limited engagement to perform his illusion. If he is in fact, no longer the original Angier and if, each time the illusion is performed, another clone is killed, the guilt is only so much to bear; it becomes understandable why Angier wouldn't want to continue performing his greatest trick.
At the end, they compare notes and we are asked whose sacrifice was greater. But there is no answer. In Heat it is expressed that the risk is worth the reward. If one is willing to sacrifice the things one values then the reward must be all the more valuable and whatever becomes of the person after such sacrifices, whether good or bad, that person has earned it. A man gets to a certain point, where he deserves the face he wears. This is the price of truth, self-truth and the failure of compromising it. The artists must always remain true to their imagination, to their creativity. All else is for the realm of the spectators and non-participants.