If the greatest magicians never reveal their tricks, then Christopher Nolan wouldn’t make it past the children’s birthday party circuit. It’s not that Nolan has anything against the old hocus-pocus, but it’s the practical side of magic that appeals to him most—the nuts-and-bolts explanation behind the seemingly “impossible” feat.
Magic lies front and center in The Prestige, adapted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan from Christopher Priest’s novel about two competing prestidigitators in turn-of-the-20th-century London. Like many of history and literature’s other great adversaries, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) begin as allies, working as audience plants in the show of a successful stage illusionist (real-life magic expert Ricky Jay). Night after night they “volunteer” to help the maestro as he binds his lovely assistant Julia (also Angier’s wife) with rope and lowers her into the padlocked water tank from which she then miraculously escapes. For Angier, a dashing fop whose stage name belies his blue-blooded lineage, showmanship is everything. For Borden, a ruddy-cheeked Cockney prole who never hesitates to let you know he’s had to work for everything he’s achieved, the illusion itself is paramount. Then, one night, both things go awry and the water tank becomes Julia’s premature grave. A devastated Angier accuses Borden of tying the wrong knot—maybe he did—and from that point forward, the two men enter into a contest of revenge and one-upmanship that can seemingly end only with the demise of one. Perchance, not even then.
Unfolding in the fragmented, palimpsestic manner that has become Nolan’s favored storytelling style, The Prestige begins with Borden on trial for Angier’s murder and then flashes back to show the full bloom of a rivalry that stretches from the streets of London to the wilds of Colorado and from the theaters of the West End to the laboratory of the beleaguered mad-genius inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). There are yet more flashbacks within those flashbacks, before we finally wind our way back to the beginning (or is it the end?) of the tale. Such nonlinear gamesmanship ought to seem like a fatigued parlor trick by now for the director of Memento, but the remarkable thing is that it doesn’t. Indeed, where most stories that are this narratively sliced and diced leave you wishing they’d simply been laid out from A to Z, you don’t long to see Nolan’s Möbius strip movies any other way. For his great subject is the randomness of memory and those fragments of things past that jut uncomfortably into our present, whether we’re an amnesiac widower chasing his own shadow or the dark knight Bruce Wayne fighting off the specter of his parents’ murder in Batman Begins.
In The Prestige, obsession is also the order of the day as Angier and Borden pursue each other for so long that even they can scarcely recall why they fight. Certainly, it is not over Julia, whose loss is quickly forgotten by Angier in his feverish search for the explanation behind Borden’s piéce de résistance, an illusion called the Transported Man, which appears to deliver its performer from one end of the stage to the other in less than the blink of an eye. But if Angier and Borden’s escalating battle of wits and wills gives The Prestige its dramatic engine, it’s also the aspect of the film that appeals to Nolan least. He can’t work up much interest in who comes out on top, or in the romantic intrigue that develops when Angier sends his new assistant/lover (Scarlett Johansson) undercover to seduce the married Borden and steal his secrets. The result is a lopsided yet absorbing movie in which the director is less drawn to his main characters than to those on the periphery—Tesla and Angier’s wizened illusion designer Cutter (Michael Caine) and, by extension, all those other men through the ages who have sought to bridge the gap between the real and the illusory.
Directing his first period feature, Nolan has picked the ideal setting for a filmmaker of such rationalist inclinations—that seismic moment at which the Victorian era began to cave under the weight of the nascent Machine Age. Thus The Prestige, filmed with a minimum of digital chicanery, is at once a lament for the loss of the manual and analog and an awestruck marveling at the possibilities of electricity and mechanization. In one moment of ethereal beauty, Tesla makes a field of oversize lightbulbs burst into brilliant illumination without apparent benefit of wires or generators. And so one is reminded how, for all the wonderment of a Houdini or a David Copperfield, the true magic of the universe lies in the onward march of science and industry, and in those many things we now take for granted—like movies themselves—that once seemed the workings of some terrifying dark art.