Making a film about magic is tricky. So used are we to flying dinosaurs and broomsticked wizards, it's become increasingly hard to impress audiences with a perfectly good disappearing coin act. Also, even if the sleight of hand is performed with jaw-dropping grace, our first instinct is to credit the digital compositors behind the scenes. The fact that a man in a top hat can make a glass of water disappear even without any help from Silicon Graphics seems irrelevant and unspectacular.
Christopher Nolan knows this, and combats this mindset head on. The Prestige, a film about two feuding magicians in the turn of the century London, doesn't discuss magic as occult, sorcery or fantasy. Magic is about a deftly performed trick, using lies, misdirection, illusion and engineering, far ahead of its time. Which is why when Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, in their all-consuming quest of one-upmanship, want to hunt out 'real magic,' they turn to the wizard, the scientist.
But just like Mr Nolan's distinctive flashback-and-forth directorial style, we are getting ahead of ourselves. The film opens with a magic finale gone wrong, with Jackman dying as Bale watches. Soon, Bale is sentenced to hang, and it is only as he turns the pages of Jackman's diary that the taller magician is resurrected. We flip back and forth through both journeys, and soon discover Jackman finding Bale's journal, after which we alternate between two people in different times, discovering their rivals through their diaries. It's a riveting watch.
Constructed like an elaborate house of cards, the film relies first on curiousity and well-crafted dialogue (most issuing from the fabulous Michael Caine, who plays stagecraft man Cutter) explaining why we can't see through a great magic trick: because we don't want to. The joy lies in being fooled, despite ourselves.
As the tale gets murkier and less cheery, shadows clutter the smoke-and-mirrors stage. Nikolai Tesla is sought after for his counsel as a revolutionary inventor who can actually do the impossible, and Edison's archrival is played here with compelling magnificence by none other than David Bowie.
Bale, playing the superior magician, has the finer dialogue and more of a stage to win from, and the actor is spot-on. He's dramatic and emotionally torn, and you go from being overwhelmed by his talent to hating his guts, to being won over again. Similarly we have Jackman, a man who knows charisma and showmanship are almost as integral as the mechanics of the trick itself. Again, this is a character we are repelled and captivated by in equal measure, and stands out as Jackman's look-I-can-act declaration.
While not a film relying on a single spoiler, this film shouldn't be written about too much just yet. You need to watch and savour The Prestige as a compelling drama about two rivals falling prey to the bases of their instincts. A story of rivalry, love and death. A story about profound truths found at the bottom of a pint-glass. A story, about magic.
The film relies heavily, beautifully on symmetry. The plot is constructed with art, and just as you believe you know the trick you are about to see, Christopher Nolan rolls up his sleeves and you discover it's a ruse. The richly textured house-of-cards so far has been but a blustery act of theatrical misdirection. The true magic is happening stage-left, just off the spotlight.
The climactic denouement is directed snobbishly, almost as if the filmmaker-conjuror doesn't care if you 'get' it or not. As the film warns you with it's very first line, you'd best be paying attention. Closely. Believe me, it's worth it.