Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A YEAR-END DISCUSSION AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
The latest in a series of great films (his tepid Insomnia remake notwithstanding) by director Christopher Nolan, who chose to follow up his excellent Batman Begins with a cracking good story that is very different in style. Bruce Wayne portrayer Christian Bale does however return, as Alfred Borden - one of a pair of deuling magicians near the turn of the last century. Hugh Jackman does marvelous work as Bale's best friend/greatest foe Robert Angier, and is driven to extremes by the loss of his beloved (who may have been killed by the former practitioner's negligence during a trick gone awry).
Also returning from Batman Begins is Michael Caine, who does excellent work as Cutter, the manager trapped in the middle as the two budding magicians' egos inflate into dangerous territory. What's amazing is that both of our 'protagonists' aren't great people. Borden will truly do horrible things to come out on top, while Angier carries his grief to levels of absurdity, when his rivalry with Bale's character has always been more important to him than his deceased paramour. Scarlet Johansson's Olivia Wenscombe is stuck in the middle of the two men, and an initial stint as Angier's informant leads to a troubled romantic liaison with Borden. The maddening turmoil of their relationship is ultimately illuminated by a darkly twisted reveal in the final act.
The detailed script by Nolan's brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan bounces back and forth between three distinct timelines with no warning. The traditional three-act story composition is distorted, yet is referenced in the three magical stages of which the title is a part. After a brilliant opening shot of a cluster of discarded and dusty men's top hats scattered throughout a wooded copse, Caine's character steps in to explain the nature of a good magic trick to both us the audience and a young fan of magic. The trick, much like a traditional story, begins with The Pledge, which establishes a premise and promises to fulfill it. The second step is The Turn, which is essentially a story twist that catches the audience off guard. The final act is The Prestige, which capitalizes on the energy of the Turn and leaves the crowd elated and hungry for more.
There are more than one turns in this trick however, as Angier's machinations to one up Borden are consistently undermined as we learn the latter magician was usually three steps ahead of him the whole time. Alfred's star making trick 'The Transported Man' (in which he throws a ball across the stage, enters a door on stage left only to instantly appear from a similar door on stage right just in time to catch the ball) sticks in Angier's craw, and he believes that there might be some very real scientific magic behind it, thanks to the brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla.
In a bit of genius casting, David Bowie portrays that talented creator who finds himself perpetually haunted by Thomas Edison's near-villainous usurping of his inventor's throne. Gollum portrayer Andy Serkis is another inspired choice to play Tesla's personal assistant in the hills of Colorado Springs. These scenes are magic in themselves, as the visual splendor of Colorado matched with the surreal images produced by Tesla's electrical inventions is the stuff of wonder. I particularly loved one scene in which a foggy, frostbitten grass field is peppered with light bulbs that illuminate it with no apparent power source except the frozen soil itself.
Soon the scattered top hats are explained with an amazing story creation that turns very, very dark. Borden's arc isn't that bright either, as his home life becomes more and more erratic and he eventually finds himself in jail for a murder that we witness at the beginning of the film. Even at this point, there are more twists that the two characters have up their sleeves for the other magician. Once the whole tangled web is sorted out, it leaves you reeling from the journey. The film looks spectacular, and both actors are able to keep the audience interested in their stories even as they both spiral into obsessive madness. The script is immaculately layered, and yields a dark fantasy that will be worth multiple future viewings.