If the greatest magicians never reveal their tricks, Christopher Nolan wouldn't make it past the children's birthday-party circuit. It's not that Nolan has anything against the old hocus-pocus, but it's the practical side of magic that appeals to him most -- the nuts-and-bolts explanation behind the seemingly "impossible" feat.
Magic lies front and center in Nolan's latest, The Prestige, adapted by the director and his brother Jonathan from Christopher Priest's well-regarded novel about two competing prestidigitators in turn-of-the-20th-century London. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) begin as allies, working as audience plants in the show of a successful stage illusionist (real-life magic expert Ricky Jay). Night after night, they "volunteer" to help the maestro as he binds his lovely assistant (and Angier's wife) Julia (Piper Perabo) with rope and lowers her into the padlocked water tank, from which she then miraculously escapes. For Angier, a dashing fop with a blue-blooded lineage, showmanship is everything. For Borden, a ruddy-cheeked Cockney who's had to work for everything he's achieved, the illusion itself is paramount. Then, one night, both things -- the trick and the presentation -- go awry, and the water tank becomes Julia's grave. A devastated Angier accuses Borden of tying the wrong knot -- maybe he did -- and from that point forward, the two men enter into a contest of revenge and one-upmanship that seemingly can end only with the death of one or the other.
Unfolding in the fragmented, palimpsest style that has become Nolan's favored storytelling style, The Prestige begins with Borden on trial for Angier's murder and then flashes back to show the full blossoming of a rivalry that stretches from the streets of London to the wilds of Colorado and from the theaters of the West End to the laboratory of the beleaguered mad-genius inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). There are more flashbacks within those flashbacks before we finally wend our way back to the beginning (or is it the end?) of the tale. Such nonlinear gamesmanship ought to seem like a parlor trick by now for the director of Memento, but the remarkable thing is that it doesn't. Indeed, where most stories this sliced and diced leave you wishing they'd simply been laid out from A to Z, you don't long to see Nolan's Möbius-strip movies any other way. For his great subject is the randomness of memory and those fragments of things past that jut uncomfortably into our present, whether we're an amnesiac widower chasing his own shadow or the dark knight Bruce Wayne staving off the specter of his parents' murder.
For his first period feature, Nolan has picked the ideal setting for his rationalist inclinations -- that seismic moment when the Victorian Era began to cave in under the weight of the nascent Machine Age. Thus The Prestige is at once a lament for the loss of the manual and analog, and an awestruck contemplation of the possibilities of electricity and mechanization.