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You know, I’ve thought about this all weekend, and I couldn’t decide my answer to the question posed at the end of class on Thursday (Who is the protagonist?) until I finished reading Bordwell’s “Three Dimensions of Narrative Film.” On page 90, Bordwell lays out a series of statements that generally categorize who a protagonist is; in other words, a set of schemata that spectators intuitively recognize as signifiers of which character is the protagonist. The remainder of this post will focus upon whether Angier or Borden is the protagonist (Cutter’s role in the movie is not un-important, but I see stronger cases for either Angier or Borden and would rather focus my discussion upon those two characters).

Statement 1: “The protagonist may be the character with the greatest power.”

I don’t believe that this statement easily resolves the question. What first comes through my mind is another question, that being “the greatest power…over what?” The greatest power over their craft? Magic? I would say that Borden wins out. He has dedicated his life to being a magician, on stage and off, to an extent that causes his wife’s death, and the eventual death of his twin brother. Angier could be argued the better showman (although this claim can be countered by Borden’s stunt involving Angier’s drunk double), but certainly his reliance upon Cutter for magic, as well as his decision to turn to science (a decision I have literally zero problem with), reveals Borden to be the better Magician.

Further, at the end of the film, it is Borden (arguably, the better Borden: the one who truly loved Sarah, and maybe the innocent Borden in the question of who killed Angier’s wife at the beginning of the film?) who remains alive to take care of his young daughter. Although, it is hard to say who lost more: Borden, who lost a brother and the woman he loved, or Angier, who had to kill himself 100 times. Also, Cutter, in my opinion, was on the side of Borden at the end, having chosen between the better of the two magicians. Also, the ‘power’ held by each magician changes constantly throughout the film. In one scene, Angier sabotages Borden’s act; in another, those roles switch. In one scene, Borden’s Transported Man trick in superior; in another, Angier’s device stumps even Borden (Note: Borden always could figure out Angier’s tricks UNTIL Angier resorted to Tesla’s machine).

All in all, I believe that Borden best fits this definition because he ends the film A) Alive, and B) with some future (his daughter), and C) all the reasons above.

Statement 2: “The Protagonist may also be the character with whom we tend to sympathize most keenly”

This question also is a rather difficult one to answer. I remember the first time I watched the film, I sympathized with Angier’s revenge motive up until it is revealed that Angier, well ‘one’ Angier, was alive while ‘one’ Borden was sentenced to death AND his daughter was in Angier’s custody. I mean, a man’s wife dies due to a stage ‘accident’ and, driven by his grief, he attempts to get revenge. I get that as a motive. But, I believe that Angier takes it too far by sending Borden to his death. Angier is always motivated by revenge and becoming the better magician. I came to sympathize more with Borden at that point, although in many ways, Borden takes it too far as well. He lives his tricks, his art to such an extent that his obsession leads to the death of his wife, a women he loves, and his brother, the “Borden” who, however, when you read his last lines, is truly sorry for what he’d done:

“So… we go alone now. Both of us. Only I don’t have as far to go as you. Go. You were right, I should have left him to his damn trick. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for a lot of things. I’m sorry about Sarah. I didn’t mean to hurt her… I didn’t. You go and live your life in full now, all right? You live for both of us.”

I think that apology, as well as realizing that Angier set Borden up, threw all of my sympathies behind the surviving Borden. Then, I had no problem with Borden killing Angier at the end. Also, I feel like it helped me that Cutter’s sympathies fell towards Borden. So, round two goes to Borden.

Statement 3: “The Protagonist may be the character with whose value system we are assumed to agree.”

In my opinion, I don’t think we as audience are supposed to agree with either Borden or Angier’s value system, but rather Cutter’s value system. I think that Cutter is the most reliable of the three narrators of the film and, like I’ve mentioned above, sympathetic towards Borden and his values. So, Cutter gets this round by a longshot.

Statement 4: “The Protagonist may be the one who is most affected or changed by events.”

My inclination is to give this round to Angier because his wife’s death turns him from a loving husband into a man unstoppable in his quest for revenge. He will kill himself 100 times in order to outwit Borden. It seems like real magic (science) is posited in the negative, while Borden’s honorable magic (that is, honorable to the art itself) is more esteemed and positive. Borden is not willing to take his competition with Angier to the same extent. Also, Angier dies (negative) and Borden lives (positive) and gets his daughter back (positive). I’d say this round goes to Angier.

Statement 5: “One quick measure of how narration can suggest who is a protagonist involves registering how long a character is onstage.”

I have no concrete answer to this statement, although I would assume that Angier and Borden share a very similar amount of time on screen together. Also, if one has more time on screen, it certainly wouldn’t be by an amount large enough to make the decision an easy.

So, overall, I would see Borden as the protagonist, but in a lot of ways, many probably not mentioned here, Angier could also be argued convincingly for the title of protagonist. Lastly, I think that the film purposefully leaves this ambiguous, or maybe another discussion needs to be raised concerning the possibility of dual protagonists here (but maybe somebody did already, and if so, awesome).

One Response to “Protagonist in The Prestige”

  1. I agree with everything you’ve said here, but I pose the same question Brett did in her blog on this topic–does it make a difference that there are two Bordens? The narrative slant is obviously towards the surviving Borden, the one who loves Sarah. But in terms of your last criteria, this Borden receives only half the screen time Angiers gets (going on the supposition that Borden and Angiers have an equal share of the film). Is it problematic that even if we leave Angiers out of it, on first viewing we have one protagonist (Borden) and on second, we have two (Bordens)?

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