Behind the cape, inside the top hat

“Memento” director Christopher Nolan returns with a bit of magic up his sleeve

Matt Graham

Are you watching closely?

All great magic acts demand close attention. The problem is, you never know if you’re watching for the right thing or if the performer is using an imperceptible sleight of hand to send you chasing phantoms.

Christopher Nolan’s 2000 film “Memento” showed him to be a magician of a director, so it’s only fitting that he return to his mind-bending roots with his new film, “The Prestige.”

“The Prestige”, based on Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel, tracks the careers of two turn-of-the-century London magicians, Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), as their relationship evolves from one of friendly competitiveness to deadly rivalry.

Like “Memento,” it’s a narrative that needs to be gradually pieced together and only really makes sense at the end, if then. The plot races forward to the beginning, which is also the finale.

The film begins with the death of Angier, for which Borden is put on trial. The remainder of the film is told mostly through a series of flashbacks, as Borden peruses Angier’s journal from his jail cell.

The catch is that Angier’s journal is constructed largely of his own translation of notes stolen from Borden.

The two were both assistants for the same magician earlier in their careers, but, when a possible mistake by Borden cost the life of Angier’s wife, Julia (Piper Perabo), the two go their separate ways.

Each one starts his own magic show, trying desperately, even violently, to upstage the other. The lower class Borden is the superior illusionist, but he has no knack for showmanship and is relegated early on to playing rundown beer halls. Angier, born to a rich family, comes quickly to fame and fortune, performing on the biggest stages in London.

But, he soon becomes obsessed with Borden’s trick, “The Transporting Man,” and it becomes an obsession he can’t shake.

Because the story is told through a series of flashbacks and fast-forwards, circumstances are almost always revealed before they are explained. Nolan, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, does a marvelous job of giving the viewer hints of what’s to come without giving too much away before the end.

Add to this his decided visual flair – with chillingly beautiful depictions of the dark London downtown and snowy Colorado Springs – and brilliant casting, and you have the makings of one of the year’s best movies. It’s the type of film that will get under your skin, leaving you still trying to unravel its tricks days later.

Just make sure you pay attention.