“Are you watching closely?” asks Bale’s East End magician Alfred Borden at the start of Christopher Nolan’s beguiling follow-up to Batman Begins . Sage advice, indeed, for such an intricate movie about magicians and their elusive craft. Having already proved himself a master manipulator with the narrative conjuring of Following and Memento, Nolan has crafted a cinematic sleight of hand that’s as intriguing as it is dazzling.
Unfolding in multi-layered flashback, The Prestige begins with Borden on trial for the murder of Angier, before deftly filling in the blanks: the tragic reasons behind their rivalry, their respective romantic/familial interests, and the story of their subsequent ascent to the top of their profession.
Like all the best magicians, Nolan shows much but tells very little. The title – and structure – comes from the three basic elements of the classic magic trick: The Pledge (set-up); The Turn (the trick itself) and The Prestige (the reveal). He’s more interested in the deeper, psychological side of magic than its essentially empty visual flair. The look is stylish, but never flashy or tricksy. Everything and everyone serves the film, so much so that even the sight of Scarlett Johansson prancing around in corset and stockings is just another layer of mystery.
Similarly, the rivalry between the two illusionists always feels truthful and unforced. Borden’s the better magician, Angier the better showman. So when the mechanics of Angier’s latest trick force him to take his standing ovation while secreted beneath the stage – as, up above, a drunken doppelganger basks in the applause – it slays him, further driving the obsession with discovering Borden’s secret.
Quibbles are minor. The grimy London streets that Bale and Jackman traipse are clearly a Hollywood backlot, and it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of David Bowie’s bizarre accent... But Nolan, astonishingly assured with every film, was never going to let us down. And once he finally does, spectacularly, unlock all the trickery, you’ll be left shaking your head in bewildered appreciation. Savour it. Just don’t give it away...