Forget "The Illusionist"! The preeminent twisty-plotted European-magicians-at-the-turn-of-the-last-century movie of 2006 is "The Prestige"! "The Prestige" is "A Bug's Life" to "The Illusionist's" "Antz," the intelligent "Deep Impact" to its silly "Armageddon."
But we will not be comparing movies, ladies and gentlemen, because it is not fair. It is coincidence, and nothing more, than two such similar films have come out in the same calendar year. Let me just point out that I thought "The Illusionist" was nothing special to begin with, and that "The Prestige" is 10 times smarter and deeper. Oh, and that Edward Norton's accent in "The Illusionist" is hilariously bad. So there.
"The Prestige" is directed by Christopher Nolan and co-written by him and his brother Jonathan, adapted from a novel by Christopher Priest. The remake "Insomnia" and the franchise-rejuvenator "Batman Begins" notwithstanding, this is the Nolan brothers' true follow-up to their 2001 masterpiece "Memento." Like that film, "The Prestige" tells its story out of sequence, with details hinting at things that have already happened but that we have not seen yet (why does Hugh Jackman have a limp?), and with surprises and reversals popping up madly in the last act.
Set in London circa 1900, the film shows us the end first (one of the Nolans' favorite tricks), with one of the two central characters dying and the other going on trial for his murder. From there time becomes fractured (though not confusingly so) as we bounce back and forth over the course of a couple years, gradually piecing together the story.
At issue are two magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). They began as friends, working together as another illusionist's assistants, but were driven apart when Angier's wife was killed during a trick. Angier blames Borden for it and subsequently makes an attempt on Borden's life during one of Borden's own stage shows. Borden retaliates during an Angier performance. And so on and so forth. The nice thing about two magicians fighting each other is that you know their methods of sabotage will always be entertaining to watch.
Borden becomes the more famous of the two magicians, working under the name The Professor and stunning audiences with an illusion called "The Transported Man." In it, he seems to walk through a door at one end of the stage, disappear, and instantly re-enter through another door at the other end. It cannot literally be done without defying the laws of physics.
Angier's faithful, level-headed assistant, Cutter (Michael Caine), calmly explains that Borden must be using a double, a look-alike. He points out, quite rightly, that all magic tricks are disappointingly simple once you know how they're done. But Angier is obsessed with Borden, first for that fatal accident involving his wife, and now for one-upping him as a magician. There MUST be more to it than a simple body double! Something more ingenious and clever!
Angier heads to Colorado, where Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) has been experimenting with electricity. (Yes, you read that right: This film features David Bowie as Nikola Tesla.) Angier believes Tesla devised a machine for Borden's "Transported Man" trick, and he wants him to do the same for him. But could a machine that ACTUALLY does what Borden's trick suggests really be built? Can Tesla really perform magic? To someone unfamiliar with the marvels of modern science, wouldn't even something as simple as electricity be "magical"?
Meanwhile, there is intrigue in Borden's personal life. He is married to Sarah (Rebecca Hall), from whom he has declared he will keep no secrets. But his lovely stage assistant, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), has become his mistress -- and, what's more, he wants her to spy on Angier for him, to learn what he's up to so he can stay one step ahead.
Bale and Jackman, a Brit and an Aussie who have never worked together but who seem like they should have, are at the top of their game, both working magic in their turns as magicians. Sometimes a showman is flashy and loud; other times he uses subtlety to attract your attention. Borden and Angier are certainly aware of this, and so are Bale and Jackman. You can tell a good actor from a mediocre one because the good actor will give even "just for fun" movies like "The Prestige" their full measure of energy and commitment. That's Bale and Jackman to a T: completely hard-working and devoted.
Early in the film, Cutter lays out how an illusion works. First the magician shows you something ordinary. Then he makes it do something impossible, like disappear. Then he puts everything right again (brings the vanished item back), but usually with a flourish (the item is in an audience member's pocket).
The genius of the film is that it is about magic tricks and is also a magic trick itself, following the pattern just described and using misdirection as much as a stage illusionist would. Details you ignored because they seemed like mere window-dressing turn out to be pivotal. Nothing is as it appears to be, and all the clues are right there in front of you.
Unfortunately, the film adheres to one of the other laws of magic, one I referred to earlier: When you find out how it's done, it's always disappointing. The film's big reveal -- the moment where Nolan yanks the handkerchief away and says, "Ta-da!" -- well, you'll probably spot it long before he wants you to. The thing is, it doesn't matter much. Where some films lean on their "surprises" like crutches, "The Prestige" doesn't live or die by the shockingness of its finale. I saw it coming a mile away and here I am, still recommending the film to you as a brilliantly plotted, smartly directed, fiendishly entertaining merry-go-round.