At the outset of Christopher Nolan’s new movie, ‘The Prestige’, we are told that a magic trick has three parts. ‘The Pledge’ or the set-up, whereby something ordinary is presented to us; ‘The Turn’, in which something extraordinary happens to the ordinary; and ‘The Prestige’, the ultimate twist or revelation.
Nolan’s movie follows a similar structure, employing the same sleight of hand as the magicians on-screen. Time shifts, parallel storylines and identity switches are skillfully woven together to produce a spellbinding tale of envy and revenge.
The movie opens at the trial of Cockney magician, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), who stands accused of murdering rival magician, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). We are shown a glimpse of Angier’s death, before being taken back to review the circumstances that brought the characters to this point. We learn of their origins as apprentices working with mentor, Cutter (the ever reliable Michael Caine), and of the terrible accident that saw them change from colleagues to bitter enemies.
These scenes are intercut with the story of Angier’s journey to Colorado to seek the aid of inventor Nikolas Tesla (the surprisingly convincing David Bowie). Angier is convinced that Tesla can build him a machine that will enable him to perform the greatest magic act of all – The Transported Man.
While Nolan has chosen to work again with Christian Bale and Michael Caine, the movie ‘The Prestige’ most resembles is not ‘Batman Begins’ but ‘Memento’. Like that earlier movie, the screenplay for ‘The Prestige’ was co-written by Nolan and brother Jonathan (adapted from the novel by Christopher Priest), and also, like ‘Memento’, we are given pieces of a complicated puzzle in a seemingly random fashion, and asked to make sense of them.
It helps that the performances are generally outstanding. Both Bale and Jackman excel as men pushed to extremes as their rivalry deepens and takes its toll on their personal lives. As already mentioned, Caine and Bowie lend solid support, while the women in their lives, played by Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall and Piper Perabo, are all quite marvelous (although Johansson’s small role doesn’t really test her skills).
The streets and theatres of 19th century London have been beautifully recreated, although ‘The Prestige’ is not a ‘widescreen’ period piece filled with lavish decoration. The sets are generally small, and the scenes intimate, focusing on the characters rather than their surroundings. The Colorado scenes achieve the same intimacy by using mist and fog to ‘enclose’ the actors.
‘The Prestige’ is the sort of movie that requires your full attention. Given some of the confused comments I overheard after the screening I attended, it’s easy to miss crucial information, particularly in the final scenes, where we discover that both Borden and Angier keep a terrible secret.
It is a hugely satisfying and enjoyable film, and further proof that Christopher Nolan is shaping up as one of the most original and accomplished cinematic storytellers of the decade.