The first words heard in Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE come in a voice-over as the camera pans across an odd collection of silk top hats in disarray across a wintry landscape. It admonishes the audience to pay close attention to everything and that is excellent advice, but perhaps futile. David Attenborough, intrepid documenter of the natural world, said it best. The camera never lies, but it doesn’t necessarily tell the truth. It was in the context of filming wildlife, but applies equally well to this meticulously intricate film that is both stylish and subversive. Believe everything you see, but trust nothing at all about the way it is presented.
Based on the novel by Christopher Priest, it’s the tale of a bitter rivalry between two turn-of-the-century magicians sparked by an accident in which the victim may or may not have been partly responsible for the tragedy. The magicians are Borden (Christian Bale) and Angier (Hugh Jackman), the victim is his pretty wife, who imagined a better way of pulling off the illusion that took her life. In classic Nolan fashion, time is the least consistent of all the elements presented, and this is perfectly in context for a story that unfolds with a logic that is perfect, yet anything but temporal.
The fortunes of the two magicians are at odds with their skills, Borden, the better at dreaming up illusions, Angier a master of presenting them with the élan expected of his craft. As Angier takes his revenge on Borden, he responds in kind, escalating their feud to epic proportions that leave the audience, never the first consideration in their machinations, alternately appalled, and utterly riveted. Ultimately it leads to an attempt to not just create an illusion, but to actually crack the secrets of the cosmos, which leads to a suitably eccentric encounter with the mad genius Nikola Tesla (David Bowie, whose strangeness is perfectly cast) and a brand of magic that frustrates explanation.
Revenge being a dish best served cold, Nolan has crafted an icy chill to this tale. A dark color palette renders even sunlight into a ghastly simulacrum of itself, while he makes the even darker passions at work here so intense that they have driven out any trace of the warmth of humanity from the protagonists. The performances by Bale and Jackman have a steely edge that is complemented by the other members of the cast, especially Michael Caine, as Angier’s theatrical manager, who can only watch with a helpless, subsumed sadness as his charge grows less and less human. The tones are hushed, even as characters are driven to extremes, a tone that makes the results no less gut-wrenching. The magic on stage may or may not be real, but Nolan maintains a perfect sense of wonder throughout, from the squalor of slums, to an electrified city seen through the eyes of someone who has never imagined such a thing, to the repetition of key scenes that play differently, even more urgently, with each showing. The simplicity of the rivals reading of each other’s diaries becomes a tense, captivating exercise in misdirection and reveal.
THE PRESITGE is an enchanting puzzle, not flashy, but fiendishly clever in the plotting and even more fiendish in the telling. It leaves its solution to the very last frame, but even then holds back just a bit because, as someone opines at one point, when you know the secret, it’s so obvious. Obvious is the last word that applies here.