“Are you watching closely?” intones Christian Bale’s East End magician Alfred Borden at the start of Christopher Nolan’s magnificent follow-up to Batman Begins. It’s as much sage advice as it is a rhetorical question, because, as befitting a movie about magicians and their secretive, elusive, and mysterious craft, this is all about the business of illusion and the magic of misdirection. You really do need to pay attention. Having already a proved himself a master manipulator with the narrative constructs of Following and Memento, Nolan, who co-wrote the script with younger brother Jonathan from a Christopher Priest novel, has here crafted a richly evocative, devilishly intricate mystery play, a cinematic sleight of hand that’s as intriguing as it is dazzling.
Once friends, now bitter rivals following a water tank trick that went tragically wrong, Victorian-era stage magicians Robert Angier aka The Great Danton (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale) are constantly trying to one-up the other, even to the point of sabotage. After stealing Borden’s big trick, the Transported Man gag, Angier embarks on an obsessive journey to discover its true secret — whatever the cost.
Unfolding in flashback [and with flashbacks within those flashbacks], the film begins with Borden on trial for the murder of Angier, before deftly filling in their past, the tragic reasons behind their rivalry — Angier blames Borden for the death of his wife (Piper Perabo) — their respective romantic/familial interests and their subsequent ascent to the top of their profession.
Like all the best magicians, Nolan’s a master of showing much but telling very little. Appearances, after all, can be deceiving. His work here is simply astounding, incorporating the three basic elements of the magic trick — namely, the Pledge (ie. the set up); the Turn (the trick itself); and the Prestige (the reveal) — into the fiendishly clever, twisty plot, using each to drive the narrative. He’s not so much interested in the visual side of magic, rather the psychological. The film looks stylish, but it’s never flashy nor tricksy in the way it’s shot. Everything and everyone serves the film, so much so that even the sight of Scarlett Johansson prancing around in corset and stockings is merely another layer of icing on an already rich and satisfying cake rather than a distraction. [Although English newcomer Rebecca Hall, as Borden’s wife, reveals herself to be a talent to watch.]
The rivalry between the two illusionists never feels forced, never less than truthful. Borden’s the better magician, Algier the better showman (a reflection, too, perhaps of the actors’ real-life personas, with Jackman the star of many a stage musical). So when the mechanics of Algier’s latest trick — ripped off from Borden’s big finale — force him to take his standing ovation whilst secreted beneath the stage — as, up above, a drunken doppelganger basks in the applause — it kills him, further fuelling his obsession with discovering Borden’s secret, and the enmity.
Inevitably, there are some minor quibbles. The grimy London streets that Bale and Jackman traipse are clearly a Hollywood backlot, although it’s hard to pinpoint an exact location to which to ascribe David Bowie’s odd accent (to be fair, he’s not bad as Nikola Tesla, the electrical genius). But that’s just nitpicking. Nolan was never going to let us down. And once he’s revealed the secret to his trickery, you’ll be left shaking your head in delightful appreciation. Savor it. Just don’t give it away...