A month ago, "The Illusionist" fashioned the world of turn-of-the-century magic into a Harlequin romance paperback, stained with a noticeable lack of actual awe to the sleight of hand. "The Prestige" (the term for a magician's ultimate reveal) puts the fangs back into magic, serving up mystery and macabre suspense worthy of the profession.
"Batman Begins" handed director Christopher Nolan the greatest hit of his career, and it was well deserved. However, "Batman" also spirited Nolan away from the fractured, intimate filmmaking with which he made his name ("Memento," "Insomnia"), making "Prestige" a homecoming of sorts. It's based on a novel by Christopher Priest, but drips with the heavy thematic investigation that Nolan is so gifted at realizing.
"Illusionist" was a picture that looked upon the mysteries of magic melodramatically. "Prestige" endeavors to take the viewer backstage to witness the creation of tricks and the frustration that arises out of competition to provide the biggest bang. Rupert and Alfred are locked in virtual battle as they try to find the ultimate trick, losing assistants (Scarlett Johansson) and the use of limbs during the contest. They fight dirty, but the respect they hold for each other ultimately outweighs their lust for supremacy. They desire fortune and glory on the London stage, but both magicians crave the trick that will make them into an industry god.
Nolan is at his best when dealing with tightly-wound mental bear traps like this. "Prestige" isn't so much a film about dueling magicians as it is a tug-o-war between two gentlemen who refuse to relinquish power to the other; they would sooner die than be known as the number two talent in the land. The antagonism is executed perfectly by Bale and Jackman, who give the roles an unsettling air of fierce, unforgiving competition that soon entangles their lives and work. Nolan does justice to these characters by not picking a favorite, instead using the seesaw momentum of the script to examine the sympathies of both men.
The trick that both Rupert and Alfred are madly chasing is known as "The Transported Man," which uses the illusion of teleportation to achieve its desire effect. It's Alfred's invention, leaving Rupert near-madness trying to figure it out, and eventually leading him to the American hideaway of Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to break its secrets. This subplot leads to some rather unsavory sci-fi tangents which could make or break the film to some audiences. Nolan doesn't shatter the hold of the story, but it can distract from the performances and the fantastic air of dirty one-upmanship that makes the first two acts of "Prestige" extraordinary.
Nolan has become something of a master of dark, cerebral material like "Prestige," and if it runs a bit long (135 minutes) and a pinch off course, it doesn't dilute the overall result. This film retains a mesmerizing hold on the audience, and it returns magic to the realm of the real, where craftsmanship and stage presence are just as thrilling as the physical act of disappearance.