As Michael Caine's character explains at the beginning of The Prestige, there are three acts to every great magic trick: the Pledge, where you're shown something ordinary ... that probably isn't; the Turn, where something ordinary is made to do something extraordinary; and the Prestige, where you see something shocking, something you've never seen before.
It's this simple definition that forms the backbone of this brilliantly crafted tragic saga of dueling magicians in turn-of-the-century London. Based on the acclaimed British novel by Christopher Priest and directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins), the entire film is an elaborate sleight of hand that confronts the limits of jealousy, ambition and sacrifice.
From its very first image a tangle of top hats and rabbits scattered across a forest floor it's clear Nolan and his screenwriter brother, Jonathan, have something exceptional up their sleeves. And like the very best magicians, they put all the clues in plain view before masterfully redirecting your attention.
Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) sits on death row, accused of the murder of his rival, Rupert "The Great Danton" Angier (Hugh Jackman). Poring over the dead man's diary, Borden looks for the clues that will set him free but instead finds Angier's response to Borden's own diary, stolen years earlier. This memoir within a memoir sets off a cascade of flashbacks and point-of-view shifts that chart the two magicians' ferocious competition.
As apprentices, the wealthy Angier was a consummate showman of modest skill, and working-class Borden lacked the charisma to sell his brilliant illusions. When a performance goes horribly wrong and Angier loses his beloved wife, the two men become lifelong enemies. Obsessively, they set out to achieve fame and glory while simultaneously attempting to crush each other, destroying relationships and push each other toward ruin. When Angier finally recruits mad-genius inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to his cause, even the boundaries of time and space hang in the balance.
The Prestige creates a chronological pretzel that tests your powers of observation; it's a remarkable achievement that never fails to engross but ultimately leaves the audience cold.
Since debuting with The Following, Nolan's films have been chilly affairs. Here, he presents two men so consumed by their obsessions they can only dedicate themselves to mutual destruction. The director seems to have little preference for which magician will emerge victorious and, as a result, when the final tragedies arrive we are left unmoved. Some may argue this is the director's point, that calamity is the inevitable price of jealousy, ambition and revenge. But the mere fact one man is left standing suggests otherwise.
The cast is superb. Jackman and Bale are at the top of their game, mirroring each other with convincing passion and intelligence. Michael Caine expertly tackles another of his world-weary caretakers, Scarlett Johansson is convincing in her small romantic role and newcomer Rebecca Hall earns the film rare moments of poignancy. But it's Bowie, as the mysterious Tesla, who gives the film an extra jolt of sophistication.
The Prestige is an ambitious and painfully sad movie that some may write off as too complex or idiosyncratic. Unlike the inferior The Illusionist, Nolan is striving for something deeper than the typical Hollywood blockbuster. He's crafted a film for those who are willing to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in a world where sacrifice and drive can rewrite the laws of physics. And isn't that what magic is all about?
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.