I am constantly surprised by Christopher Nolan. He manages to get the central conceit of a tale so strongly, and then proceeds to have such an iron-clad grip over it, that not just the the art and beauty of storytelling, but the craft and audacity with which he constructs these films is to be applauded. In Memento, he explored a story about a man who can't remember, through mind-bending reverse chronology, and in Batman Begins
he told the origin of a dark superhero by pondering on the rough and tumble of his early days and the darkness that surrounds his soul. In The Prestige, once again returning to his small budget, non-blockbuster roots, he constructs the film in the form of a magic trick.
In a way, the story itself becomes the theme for the film. Magic tricks are explained as consisting of three distinct parts - first the setup, or the "pledge", where the magician shows the audience something that appears ordinary, like his empty hands. Then there is the performance, or the "turn", where the magician makes the ordinary act extraordinary. Lastly, there is the "prestige", where the effect of the illusion is produced. Skip any of these steps, and the audience may not be as awed by your trick as you would want them to be.
The film, too, plays its cards close to its chest. There is a whiff of mystery in every frame, but the film first starts off by showing you ordinary things. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) are apprentices to a less-than-spectacular magician in 19th century London. When Angier's wife (Piper Perabo), the magician's stage assistant, is drowned during an act, suspicion falls on Borden who wanted to try a new kind of knot, despite being warned not to.
It's the beginning of a life-long enmity where the two up and coming illusionists try to beat each other as both grow in stature and fame. Physical, professional and personal hurt is meted out with equal disregard from both sides. Obsession with being each other's better leads the two men down a path of self-destruction and personal fixations. Not to spoil the film for any of you, the turn and prestige follow in pacing and structure just like a magic trick, and you are left disbelieving at the power of the film.
The two lead actors lend credibility to their personal feud, and I am envious of the way this film has been cast note-perfect. Hugh Jackman is a true star with great personal charisma, and he plays the greatest showman in London. Bale, on the other hand, plays the more working class Borden, who may be a better magician, but is not as good at the showbiz, which is fitting as he a fantastic actor, and revels in the dark and moody stuff.
The two actors play off each other's strengths, which are palpable, despite not having too much screen time together. Jackman's half of the story also benefits from getting the best supporting cast. Michael Caine plays Angier's "engineer", the man who builds the illusions. David Bowie and Andy Serkis play real-life scientist genius Nikola Tesla and his assistant Alley. Caine comes close to stealing the film, in a role that is both pivotal, and immensely rewarding for such a fantastic actor. Bowie has a gravitas that makes his role thoroughly enjoyable, and Serkis is just gleeful in playing a non CGI role, I suppose.
With much skulduggery going on between the two magicians, the plot gets thicker and thicker as Angier obsesses in finding out the secret to better Borden's strongest illusion - The Transported Man. The secrets of the two illusions these men create - and there are
two separate illusions, mind - become part of the prestige, and Nolan handles this convoluted setup with style and grace handling the plot that jumps forward and backward in time.
For the cine-phile, as probably not for an avid magic show viewer, there are plenty of hints thrown in at every moment. The film revels in being the kind of puzzle film that you try and pay close attention to. The pacing is great, and the smashing dialog and lingering cinematography lend to the atmospheric hints beautifully. Therein also lies the biggest flaw of the film. Beyond the hints, beyond the great illusion the film presents, there is nothing under the surface.
The film has no time or patience to let us soak in the 19th century London, the moody ambience and the powerful acting. All this fast-paced narrative is interested in is presenting what is relevant to the story, the twist, the illusion, and nothing else.
Nevertheless, as you plunge deeper into this dark magic trick, The Prestige becomes a great drama. And as you explore the characters and indulge yourself in a twist you have already understood, it still remains a well-constructed magic trick. Watch closely. *Poof*