Director Christopher Nolan is obsessed with obsession. His last three films, Memento, Insomnia and Batman Begins, all have, at their core, single-minded men who are driven beyond the boundaries of reason. Memento’s Leonard will not let complete short term memory loss prevent him from finding his wife’s killer. The cop in Insomnia is so preoccupied by guilt and the search for a serial killer he cannot sleep and Batman Begin’s title character, well, let’s just say he has some issues. His latest picture, The Prestige, turns up the heat, focusing on two Victorian age magicians hell bent on destroying one another professionally and personally.
At the beginning of the film a good-natured rivalry turns deadly for budding magicians Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) when Borden causes an onstage accident that causes the death of Angier’s wife. A cat and mouse game persists over the years, culminating when Borden creates the ultimate illusion, The Transported Man, a spectacular stage illusion where a man seems to disappear and instantaneously reappear on the other side of the stage. Angier will stop at nothing to discover the secret of The Transported Man. Borden knows this and uses his adversary’s obsession to draw him deeper into a web of deceit and trickery.
The real magic here is the way in which Nolan tells the story. He has designed the movie’s plot pattern as kind of a Mobius Strip, which constantly turns in on itself, keeping the viewer from knowing what is coming next. He plays with the time line, employing flashbacks (and even a flashback within a flashback) slowly pulling all the discombobulated elements of the story together. Nolan’s strange twisting of time can be confusing, but stick with it. In the end all the pieces fit together. Like the old trick where a conjurer sawed a woman in half, the effect on the viewer is weird and wonderful. You can’t believe your eyes, but in the end, when the lady (or the story) is put together again, something that seemed impossible somehow appears to make sense.
The movie is anchored by the performances of its leads. The two actors play polar opposites—Borden is rough around the edges, Angier suave and upper-class; Borden is a self-taught magician, Angier studied the masters of the craft—and, as such, each brings a different slant to their obsession. Borden is streetwise, while Angier is more sophisticated. Christian Bale, working with Nolan for a second time following his turn as the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins, brings an edgy brooding to Borden, handing in what may be the best performance of his career so far. As the suave Angier, Hugh Jackman finally delivers on the promise he has shown in other films. He’s a good actor, but performances in movies like Van Helsing and Kate & Leopold haven’t shown the strength on display here.
The supporting cast is eclectic and interesting. Michael Caine (also making a return appearance from Nolan’s batman movie) hands in one of his self-assured mentor performances. He plays Borden’s magic guru with the degree of charm and professionalism we have come to expect from him. No surprises there. More interesting is David Bowie as America’s greatest electrical engineer Nikolai Tesla. Bowie transforms the engineer into a regal, but mysterious presence.
The Prestige has much in common with the magicians who inspired it. Victorian conjurers used misdirection and spectacle to wow audiences. In 2006, with The Prestige, Christopher Nolan is doing the same thing.