Running Time: 135 minutes.
Rated: Rated M: moderate violence, moderate themes.
Christopher Nolan is an English film noir director who delights in using non-linear storytelling techniques to challenge conventional ideas about filmmaking and reality. By moving backwards and forwards in time in a way similar to pressing the replay button on a videotape recorder, his ingenious psychological thriller Memento (2000) showed the extent to which identity is dependant on memory, and how tenuous that link can be.
This was followed by his edgy remake of the Norwegian thriller Insomnia, and a more routine take on the caped crusader in Batman Returns. Nolan sets out to discombobulate viewers again with his latest film The Prestige, but while it is ravishing to watch, it needs more than one viewing to fully grasp its meaning.
Based on the novel by British sci-fi/fantasy writer Christopher Priest, The Prestige is set in Victorian London, where Cutter (played by Michael Caine), an ingeneur - the man who designs the magician's tricks and illusions - explains to a little girl, Jess Samantha Mahurin), the three acts essential to every great magic trick.
The first act is The Pledge, in which the audience is shown something quite ordinary. The second is The Turn, when something happens that will transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. The Prestige - says Cutter with a flourish as he pulls a cloth from a cage revealing a canary alive and not dead as expected - is the illusion itself, which is either secret, or cannot be explained.
Written by the Nolan brothers, the complex screenplay is cleverly crafted to mimic these three conjuring acts, which is why perhaps, even when one believes that the secret of the illusion has been discovered midway through the film, the viewer cannot really be sure.
Set in the gaslight-and-velvet world of Victorian music halls, two nineteenth century stage illusionists, the well-heeled American Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and the working-class Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), are engaged in a deadly feud. Both men have different natures and abilities: Angier is a suave showman with a hunger for fame and perfection, while the moody and taciturn Alfred has less stage flair but is more creative.
The two men begin as partners under the tutelage of the Great Virgil (J Paul Moore), which is where they meet Cutter, who becomes a fixture in both their lives. But when Angier's beloved wife Julia (Piper Perabo) is accidentally drowned through Borden tying a faulty knot during one of the acts, their friendship turns to a deadly rivalry which early in the film results in Borden being sentenced to hang for Angier's murder.
Rather like the duelling Hussars in Ridley Scott's The Duellists, the cause of the long-standing feud between the rival magicians is largely mysterious and unfathomable. One reason is Borden's ingenious Transportation trick, which Angier seeks to upstage. To this end he travels to Colorado where he commissions the great physicist and inventor Tesla (David Bowie) to built him an electromagnetic machine, which like a nineteenth century Tardis transports Angier in an illusion intended to surpass that of his rival.
But in the world of illusions, of course, nothing is what it seems. Set in Vienna in the 1890s, Neil Burger's recent film The Illusionist is also about magicians, who along with spiritualists were the celebrity entertainers of their day. But whereas The Illusionist can be seen principally as a love story set against the backdrop of Imperial Russia, The Prestige is about obsession, double-dealing, and the lengths men will go to acquire power.
Performances by the talented ensemble cast (Caine, Bowie, and Johansson in particular) are first rate, although one might have wished for greater emotional complexity from such interesting characters as Borden and Angier. This reservation aside, however, The Prestige is superbly realised and makes for intriguing, thought-provoking entertainment.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.