As if materialized out of thin air, The Illusionist has emerged as one of 2006's sleeper hits. As smart and satisfying as Edward Norton's Houdini-era puzzle box may be, The Illusionist ends up as just the opening act for The Prestige. Memento director Christopher Nolan conjures an even more enchanting and complex period piece. Both films apply the techniques of classic stage magicians to mystify movie audiences. In an era of computerized special effects, they come by their trickery honestly.
The Prestige begins with Victorian-era magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) on trial for murdering a rival illusionist and former friend, Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman), but to say appearances can deceive is a monumental understatement. Nolan doubles back in time to show how a fatal onstage mishap led to their vicious competition, with both fiendishly sabotaging each other's act during live performances over the years.
The two men represent the two sides of stage magic, and indeed any artistic endeavor. Borden's technical brilliance lacks audience-friendly razzle-dazzle, while Angier's slick showmanship suffers from a true creative spark. They're born enemies, and both actors' styles match the obsessions of both men (Bale being more moody and inward focused, Jackman more flamboyant and outward) as they risk their lives, their families and their sanity in besting each other with the perfect illusion.
Nolan appreciates the talents of his cast, utilizing Scarlett Johansson's glamour as an alluring magician's assistant, Michael Caine's seasoned voice as a wise stage engineer and David Bowie's unique presence in an understated turn as Nikola Tesla, electrical pioneer and "real" wizard.
I confess that I peeked behind The Prestige's curtain by reading Christopher Priest's original novel earlier this year, so I knew the nature of the secrets going in. Impressively, Nolan and his co-writer and brother Jonathan Nolan revise the story enough to raise the suspense and emotional stakes, transforming a seemingly unfilmable book into something rich, exciting and a little weird. The Nolans drop enough hints about their twists that The Prestige will reward second viewings (and I kept wondering if I could have figured things out as a "virgin" viewer).
The film offers the same satisfaction as a real magician's feat of prestidigitation, which can thrill you even if you know how it's done.