The Prestige

Starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, and Michael Caine. Rated PG.

In Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, elegantly constructed new movie, we learn that “the prestige” is the third, and hardest, part of a magic trick. After an ordinary object is introduced (“the pledge”), the illusionist makes it do something extraordinary, like disappear (“the turn”), and then he shocks the audience by bringing it back with a twist (“the prestige”). Nolan pulls off more than a few sleight-of-hands himself, and once his tale of Victorian-era magicians really gets going, he hits you with prestige after prestige after prestige. Like the best illusionists, he’s constantly diverting your attention elsewhere as his outsized story folds in on itself and reveals new, extraordinary dimensions.

Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two London magicians locked in a bitter rivalry because of a tragedy that happened on-stage when they were first learning their craft. The story strays into the fantastical, jumping back and forth in time, but the actors root it all in realistic, complex characterizations: Jackman is perfectly cast as a sophisticated showman obsessed with learning Borden’s trade secrets, while Bale displays dark new depth as a cockney guy who’s awkward and intense but ultimately the better magician. Neither man fully appreciates the women who love them, whether it’s Scarlett Johansson’s cleverly underplayed stage assistant or Borden’s attention-starved wife (Piper Perabo). Just who is willing to sacrifice more for his art is unclear as their sadistic competition escalates to dangerous levels.

Nolan, who wrote The Prestige with his brother Jonathan based on the complex novel by Christopher Priest, has created a puzzle box of a structure (no surprise when you consider these are the men who made Memento). We bounce everywhere from Borden sitting on death row for murder and Michael Caine’s veteran magician testifying at his trial to a Sleepy Hollow–styled 19th-century Colorado, where scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie, reinventing himself as the creepy mystery man) is researching ways to give Angier’s act more electrical charge—literally. Along the way, we get to revel in Nolan’s sepia-lit Victoriana, with its oil lamps, clattery carriage rides, and rowdy stage halls. More importantly, the director is a master illusionist himself, using recurrent imagery to lead us down certain paths or emphasize themes: note the surreal opening shot of a slew of top hats scattered on a forest floor, or the repeated old magic trick of a bird cage being smashed with the tweeter still inside.

Nolan has conjured a bold mix of thriller and period piece, with even a precocious dab of science fiction. At the same time, his new film manages to explore the nature of truth, fame, and immortality. He takes a little too long setting up the men’s rivalry, and he telegraphs one or two of his tricks too obviously, but it doesn’t matter—in the end, all that stays with you is the awe of the prestige.