“The Prestige” begins with a magic trick. Cutter (Michael Caine) explains the mechanics of magic to a young girl. First there’s the pledge, when the magician presents an ordinary object – in this case a bird in a cage. Then there’s the turn – when the cage disappears. But people don’t applaud, he explains, until the third step – the prestige. “It’s not enough to make something disappear,” he tells her. “You have to bring it back.” And the bird reappears in his other hand.
Later we learn how this stunt works: the bird is crushed in the cage and replaced with a twin. The gruesomeness that makes wonder possible is at the gothic heart of Christopher Nolan’s new thriller. Cruelty towards creatures turns into cruelty towards humans as the magicians at its center become increasingly willing to “get their hands dirty” for the sake of a good trick.
Based on a novel by H.G. Well’s enthusiast Christopher Priest, “The Prestige” is set in the 19th century where magic and technology were popular entertainment, and when saying a feat came from China was enough to draw gasps.
Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Bordan (Christian Bale) meet while working for Cutter. A tragic accident, possibly Bordan’s fault, breaks up the group and turns the pair into lifelong rivals. Bordan, calling himself “The Professor,” is the superior magician and more willing to take risks. Angier, “The Great Danton,” has a gift for showmanship that can draw larger crowds.
Caught between the two is Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson), a magician’s assistant who bounces between the leads. Both men fall in love with her, but she’s just another prize for them to fight over – she always chooses the magician at the top of his game.
Bale once again gets so far into his character that at first, he’s barely recognizable. Like Bruce Wayne in “Batman Begins,” Bordan is an inscrutable tangle of defenses, but this time he lacks a wall of muscles to hide behind. Instead, Bale embodies a lean hunger. His smiles are more animal than human. Jackman occasionally looks too happy for his part, but he has the trickier role. Both men are obsessive to the point of insanity; Jackman has to also be likable.
Bordan creates an act called “The Transported Man,” in which he goes into one closet and immediately comes out of one on the opposite side of the stage. Angier, convinced that Bordan isn’t using a double, becomes determined to learn the secret. His search takes him to Nikola Tesla (David Bowie, but you wouldn’t know it), who builds him a machine that does what magic only pretends to do.
A real historical figure somewhat awkwardly thrown into a historically impossible situation, Tesla’s appearance signifies a slightly awkward shift from period drama to science fiction. Nolan wisely doesn’t linger on the change long enough to make it obvious. In this strange slice of time when new inventions were more terrifying (and more deadly) than magic, it seems almost plausible. For a few moments it’s possible to feel the same kind of disbelieving fear that people did when they first saw Tesla’s current.
It’s difficult to create that awe onscreen, where anything can appear and disappear without a trap door. But the “The Prestige” is extraordinary in its plot, not its tricks. Like Nolan’s “Memento,” the story is an enigmatic maze, and the final surprise is human awfulness rather than inhuman art. At over two hours, “The Prestige” seems reluctant to let go, to reveal its secret. Even when it does, the puzzle doesn’t quite fit together. But sometimes doubt can be strangely satisfying.