If the greatest magicians never reveal their tricks, then 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 mind you, but it’s the practical side of magic that appeals to him most — the nuts-and-bolts explanation behind the seemingly “impossible” feat. Is it any wonder then that, once upon a time, such a lad gazed up at a silver screen and wondered how its pictures came to talk and move?

Magic lies front and center in Nolan’s latest, The Prestige, which was 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. Like many of history and literature’s great adversaries, 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 whose stage name belies his blue-blooded lineage, showmanship is everything — less the trick than the panache with which it is presented. For Borden, a ruddy-cheeked Cockney prole who never hesitates to let you know he’s had to work for everything he’s achieved in life, 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 bitter contest of revenge and one-upmanship that can seemingly end only with one of their own demises — perchance, not even then.

Unfolding in the fragmented, palimpsestic manner that has become Nolan’s favored storytelling style, The Prestige begins with Borden on trial for Angier’s murder and then flashes back, as the accused reads through the pages of his old foe’s diary, to show the full bloom 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 (played with paranoid certainty by David Bowie). There are yet more flashbacks within those flashbacks, before we finally wind our way back to the beginning (or is it the end?) of the tale. It goes without saying that nothing in The Prestige is quite as it appears to the naked eye.

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 neatly 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.

In The Prestige, obsession is also the order of the day as Angier and Borden, rather like the feuding Napoleonic soldiers of Conrad’s “The Duel,” pursue each other for so long even they can scarcely recall why it is that they fight. Certainly, it is not over fair Julia, whose loss is quickly forgotten by Angier in his feverish search for the explanation behind Borden’s pièce de résistance, an illusion called The Transported Man that appears to deliver its performer from one end of the stage to the other in less than the blink of an eye. But if Angier and Borden’s escalating battle of wits and wills is what gives The Prestige its dramatic engine, it’s also the aspect of the film that appeals to Nolan least. He can’t work up much interest in who comes out on top, or in the romantic intrigue that develops when Angier sends his beautiful new assistant/lover (Scarlett Johansson) undercover to seduce the married Borden and steal his secrets. The result is an oddly lopsided yet compulsively absorbing movie in which the director is less drawn to his main characters than to those on the periphery — to Tesla and to Angier’s wizened illusion designer Cutter (Michael Caine) and, by extension, all those other men through the ages who have sought to bridge the gap between the real and the illusory, the natural and the supernatural.

Directing his first period feature, with most of the same design team (including Oscar-nominated cinematographer Wally Pfister) that served him so well on Batman Begins, Nolan has picked the ideal setting for his rationalist inclinations — that seismic moment at which the Victorian Era began to cave under the weight of the nascent Machine Age. Thus The Prestige, which was filmed by Nolan with a minimum of digital chicanery, is at once a lament for the loss of the manual and analog and an awestruck marveling at the possibilities of electricity and mechanization. In one moment of transfixing, ethereal beauty, Tesla makes a field of oversize light bulbs burst into brilliant illumination without apparent benefit of wires or generators. And so we are reminded how, for all the wonderment of a Houdini or a David Copperfield, the true magic of the universe lies in the onward march of science and industry, and in those many things we now take for granted — like movies themselves — that once seemed the product of some terrifying dark art.

THE PRESTIGE | Directed by CHRISTOPHER NOLAN | Written by JONATHAN NOLAN and CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, based on the novel by CHRISTOPHER PRIEST | Produced by EMMA THOMAS, AARON RYDER and CHRISTOPHER NOLAN | Released by Touchstone Pictures | Citywide

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