The Prestige (12A)

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The Independent Culture

Christopher Nolan's The Prestige is a very clever film - damnably clever, you might say, in keeping with its Victorian setting. A story of feuding stage illusionists in the 1890s, The Prestige - its opening line is, "Are you watching closely?" - defies us to see through its trickery and spot the hidden seams in its fabric. These days, of course, most Hollywood illusion doesn't have even seams: digital image-making irons everything into one smooth, unbroken surface. What's intriguing about The Prestige is the old-fashioned possibility that such a film actually might contain hidden folds detectable by the attentive eye.

Nostalgic for pre-CGI spectacle, The Prestige favours old-school mechanisms and optical tricks - smoke-and-mirrors mise en scène, legerdemain editing. This film puts software aside and reminds us that screen magic, and stage magic before it, were born of levers and lenses, trap doors and collapsible cages. Like any practised conjurer, the film is at once honest (it warns you that you're about to be had) and outrageously dishonest (you're had, but not the way you expected).

I'll say no more: critics are asked to be discreet not just about the ending, but more generally about "the deceptions at the heart of the film" ("the film-makers respectfully ask," says the press kit, in another delightfully Victorian touch).

Based on Christopher Priest's novel, the film - scripted by the director and his brother Jonathan Nolan - concerns two stage magicians, patrician showman Angier (Hugh Jackman) and impassioned working-class perfectionist Borden (Christian Bale). Former colleagues, they are now bitterly at war over the alpha and omega of stage dazzle, a trick called "The Transported Man". The story begins with one man's stage act going horribly wrong, then backtracks to unravel the pair's rivalry. In fact, backtracking - at which the Nolans proved masters in Memento - isn't half of it. The Prestige is so crammed with hidden drawers that it would take a Magic Circle quorum to draft a coherent synopsis. The narrative pulls us in through the very 19th-century method of having one character read the other's journal - only to take us to another narrative level in which the second man is reading the journal of the first. No wonder we're never sure how much of what we see is actually happening - and no wonder we find it hard to believe the film even when it requires us to take events at face value.

But all credit to the Nolans for taking the wilful risk that they'll trip themselves up with their own deviousness. They flag up their methodology from the outset. Michael Caine, playing an ingénieur or conjuror's special-effects man, explains that a magic trick comes in three acts: the Pledge (the set-up), the Turn (dazzling twist) and the Prestige (expectation-confounding finale). So we know all along how the whole film works, and we're betting that we can see how it's done; but really we're victims of the classic ploy of misdirection, missing the real trick that's being played under our noses.

Busy working out the narrative calculus, we're also likely to overlook the other appeals of the film, but they are many: Wally Pfister's atmospheric photography, Nathan Crowley's imposingly ominous design, and a genial cast that heartily relishes the music-hall flamboyance. Jackman is sleek and Mandrake-like; Christian Bale continues to resemble a hyperactive 12-year-old lycanthrope; Rebecca Hall makes her mark with a tender, gawky-graceful performance; and Caine is mischievous in a droll, leisurely way. David Bowie is here too, surprisingly looking his age at last as electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla, dignified and other-worldly with his strangulated Serbian diction (Bowie's fastidious pronunciation of "fi-nan-zieer" is reason alone to pay the ticket price). Scarlett Johansson, though, is so pallidly vaporous as the glamorous assistant, it would have been fairer to cast her as the puff of smoke.

The Prestige doesn't cease to confound till the end, though if it had confounded less, it might have amazed a little more. As we reach the third act, the Prestige of The Prestige, we're increasingly aware of a laborious mechanism grinding towards an ending. The climactic surprise seems to me both confusing and an outright cheat, as it involves a leap from one register of logic to another one entirely. I'll just say here that everything hinges (we're in the 1890s, remember) on the shift from one world of technological possibility into another, from "magic" to "science"; and the film is set at a time when magicians of the planks-and-red-curtains world were being displaced by wizards of shadows and electricity like Georges Méliès.

And perhaps Nolan misses a trick in presenting us with two such unsympathetic, vindictive characters: the story cries out for a sharper, more excruciating black-comic edge. The cerebral hedonism of The Prestige is a captivating, welcome anomaly, but while Nolan deploys the densest smoke and gleamingest mirrors that money can buy, he could use just a little of the casual chutzpah of screen tricksters like David Mamet or that Faustus of flummery Orson Welles.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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