Memento mastermind Christopher Nolan returns to fragmented storytelling with The Prestige, a saga of dueling magicians in early-20th-century London, which, for much of its two hours, features a splintered plot structure wherein death row inmate Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) relives his rivalry with Robert "The Great Danton" Angier (Hugh Jackman) by reading the man's diary, a tome that itself recounts Angier's remembrances of poring over Borden's diary. It's a present-day tale within a memoir within a journal, Nolan's pretzel chronology a stab at directorial misdirection that, in its graceful execution, seeks to mirror the dexterous sleight of hand executed by his two protagonists. In a year in which The Illusionist already attempted the same parallel, however, the introductory narration's opening query-cum-suggestion "Are you watching closely?" proves less an intriguing intimation than a somewhat dreary tip-off about the unreliability of everything that will follow, lacing the proceedings with an obvious untrustworthiness that does much to sap the film of its tantalizing inscrutability. Supposedly minor details and peripheral players whose faces remain obscured in the director's meticulously composed frame become neon-bright clues to The Prestige's layered secrets, the underlying revelations to its mysteries made vaguely inconsequential by the fact that the project is upfront about its status as a handsomely made, but nonetheless gimmicky, parlor game.
Which isn't to say that Nolan's follow-up to last year's Batman Begins (with which it shares stars Bale and Michael Caine, as well as cinematographer Wally Pfister) strives only to be a cunning example of cinematic smoke and mirrors. In the increasingly over-the-line professional battle between Angier, a magnetic entertainer with only modest magician talents, and Borden, his former partner and a wunderkind whose arrogance led to the death of Angier's wife Julia (Piper Perabo), Nolan's script (co-written with brother Jonathan, adapting from Christopher Priest's novel) also endeavors to paint a portrait of obsession run amok, with Angier's jealousy over Borden's superior skills—and envy over his adversary's showstopper "The Transported Man," which he longs to steal for his own act—leading both men down a path of devastation and ruin. The narrative's burning passions and consuming infatuations, though, seem in constant competition with the opulent production design. It's as if the duality of Borden's character or self-destructiveness of Angier's mania are prevented by the director from taking precedence over the film's exquisite period décor and scrupulously constructed magicians' gadgets, the latter of which receive lavish attention during scenes set in the two conjurers' congested workshops, as well as in a sequence involving Angier's trusty trick-maker Cutter (Caine) demonstrating the process for a bird-disappearing routine.
Save for Scarlett Johansson's fluctuating British accent as Olivia, the stage assistant and love interest of both men, The Prestige's performances have a big-budget, larger-than-life robustness, with Bale and Jackman in particular remaining believably three-dimensional even as the prevailing air of grandiosity threatens to reduce them to mere pawns in an intricately designed feint. Of course, that's all they are—chess pieces to be employed in service of Nolan's complex obfuscations—and yet Nolan's deft sequential manipulations nonetheless often make the (predominantly shallow) twists and turns irresistibly seductive, his story operating not unlike one of Cutter's clever mechanical devices in which interconnected gears, belts, sprockets, and buckles create the illusion of the extraordinary. Underneath such tantalizing stratagems, however, lies little more than mundane truths, a fact confirmed by a preponderance of climactic bombshells that do little but explain, in predictable, dreary, and/or preposterous fashion, the answers to the preceding action's initially enticing questions. With his film's finale note, Nolan attempts to flippantly justify an unresolved and exceptionally nonsensical plot point by telling his audience "You want to be fooled." What he fails to realize, however, is that cinema's most compelling trick isn't simply superficial deception, but the ability to elicit emotional engagement in something that's inherently artificial—a feat The Prestige, for all its razzle-dazzle duplicity, never pulls off.