"Are you watching closely?" a voice asks at the beginning of "The Prestige." The question, like almost everything else about this passionate, atmospheric entertainment, is a calculated piece of misdirection. No matter how hard you try, you can't be watching this twisty tale closely enough to avoid its elegant traps and snares.
Directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as turn-of-the-century London magicians who engage in a devious and deadly no-holds-barred rivalry, "The Prestige" does more than focus on magicians. It is so in love with the romance, wonder and ability to fool of stage illusion that it becomes something of a magic trick in and of itself
Nolan, as usual working from a script he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, makes full use of the screen's ability to makes us believe in the unbelievable because we've seen it with our own eyes. Taking as their source material an intricate novel by British writer Christopher Priest that won the World Fantasy Award, the Nolans have come up with a film that is trickier still, mixing magic and drama, realistically re-created history and daring science fiction in an especially heady blend.
Intent on keeping us off-balance and unnerved at all times, "The Prestige" presents a head-turning narrative that doubles back and forth between protagonists and time frames in a way that is frankly easier to watch and enjoy than fully explain. Part factual, part fictional, part fantastical, what results verges on being too tricky, on mixing too many genres, but the filmmaking is of such a high order it is hard not to be impressed and entertained.
Nolan, as is often the case (think "Batman Returns," "Insomnia," "Memento"), is concerned here with questions of identity, with what is hidden and what is not. He is also a director who enjoys bringing a modern sensibility to traditional material, who understands that a feeling for realistically conceived characters is essential in making an outsized story compelling.
The characters, as is often the case with rivalries, start out as friends, young magicians in late 19th century London "devoted to their careers and to an ideal," the notion of advancing the art of deception with new tricks that will astonish the world.
As described by Michael Caine's Cutter, an ingeneur or designer of elaborate stage illusions, classic tricks have a three-part structure. First is the pledge, wherein a magician shows you something ordinary. Then there's the turn, where you make the ordinary object do something extraordinary. Finally comes the prestige, the hardest part, where "you see something shocking you've never seen before."
Not surprisingly, "The Prestige's" pair of rival magicians take opposite approaches to these basics, extremes that are intensified by shrewd casting, starting with Jackman as Robert Angier, known professionally as the Great Danton. Angier is above all else a natural showman, someone who oozes the kind of charisma no one can match. Especially not Alfred Borden.
But though his showmanship is negligible, Borden, played by Bale, is a born magician who burns with a sometimes self-righteous true believer's determination to make magic that will last. Nolan, who cast Bale as Batman and sees more in him than anyone else, has brought out a latent, awkward warmth in this actor in addition to his usual distance that is essential to the plot.
A series of encounters turns these men into the stone cold bitterest of rivals who rage with enough fury to want to destroy each other's personal as well as professional lives. Since this anger comes out of what happens on stage, it's critical for the magic on film to be convincing, and with the assistance of technical advisors and magicians Ricky Jay (who also has a cameo) and Michael Weber, it definitely is.
As it switches between periods in both careers, "The Prestige" even has each man at one time or another reading the other's secret diary. Women figure in these rivalries (how could they not?), and they are uniformly well played by Piper Perabo as Angier's wife, Rebecca Hall as Borden's, and a nicely pulled-back Scarlett Johansson as a lithesome stage assistant.
Finally, however, these men care more about secrets than people, especially the secret behind a trick of Borden's called the New Transported Man that has Angier take a trip to Colorado to meet with real-life rogue scientist Nikola Tesla. Having this great original played by another great original, David Bowie, was a stroke of casting genius. Bowie gives an immaculate performance, using an undefinable accent to utter gnomic pronouncements to wonderful effect.
Set in a beautifully realized turn-of-the-century London shot (by Wally Pfister) largely with a hand-held camera to heighten its immediacy, "The Prestige" is an adult, provocative piece of work. It's finally about the price that must be paid for immortality in any creative field, about the risk and sacrifice that superlative magic demands. "You've got to get your hands dirty if you're going to do the impossible," someone says, and this ambitious, unnerving melodrama shows exactly what that means.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence and disturbing images
A Touchstone Pictures release. Director Christopher Nolan. Screenplay Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan. Based on the novel by Christopher Priest. Producers Emma Thomas, Aaron Ryder, Christopher Nolan. Director of photography Wally Pfister. Editor Lee Smith. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.
In general release.