We talk often about 'the magic of cinema' and, as is so often the case with cliche, we are saying something quite interesting and not thinking about it at all. The early days of cinema were, after all, largely regarded as a piece of conjuring with an unusual apparatus - film-makers like Melies were keener in their work on showing what could not be presented on stage than they were on coherent narrative. Film was a performance, and a trick; it was a while before people realized that it was an art-form all of its own.
Christopher Nolan's The Prestige is one of several recent or forthcoming films which honour the movies' debt to those early days, and to play with the interesting ambiguities that arise when a technology and art that can, in theory, show us anything shows us a sort of performance which is all about constantly stretching, by ingenuity, the limits of what can be shown. It is a film about difficulty, and about sacrifice, the rival magicians of which realize, early on, that one of the masters of their trade spends his whole life shuffling around as if frail in order to perform a partricular trick. Both of them make sacrifices to their art, and to their rivalry; the question becomes, by the film's end, which of them has sacrificed, among other things, their right to be regarded as a person with moral intelligence, what in other words we call their soul.
This theme of sacrifice is one of the many things Nolan has taken, along with some of the gaudiest features of The Prestige's plot, from Christopher Priest's award-winning novel. He has also changed much of that plot quite radically, excising, for example, all of the novel's material about the magicians' descendants, and adding, among other things like a murder trial and a vicious act of mutilation, a moral centre and explainer in Michael Caine's Cutter, whose authoritative voice displays the rules of conjuring to us. We are told the difference between the pledge, the turn and the prestige, the thing that takes us out of the ordinary world, 'something shocking you've never seen before'.
Nolan re-creates a world of dangerous and exhilarating tricks, of escapes from water-tanks, and Catching the Bullet, and the two very different forms of the trick known as the Transported Man; like Priest before him, he shows us a public unclear in its mind between the results of gimmicks like trick cabinets and the new and real results of technology. The inventor Tesla is the real magician in both book and film, because he is the magician who delivers on his promises, and whose vast apparatus with its sparks and lightning strikes is also the future we live in. As played by a middle-aged David Bowie, even more charismatic than when young and beautiful, he is also the ultimate showman, someone who both lives and performs in a world of magic.
The screenplay, written by Nolan and his brother, is an extraordinarily accomplished piece of work, which tells us everything we need to know at every stage in the game, and yet misdirects us away from much of what is important. We walk away at the end only beginning to grasp the nightmarishness of what we have seen - a stack of identical top hats glimpsed at the opening comes to have a significance we could never have guessed.
One of Nolan's many abilities as director - also on show in his franchise-reviving Batman Begins - is his gift for working with actors, and for attaching to his films all the charisma that goes with luxury casting. Apart from Bowie and Caine, the secondary roles in The Prestige are played by the likes of Scarlet Johansen, Rebecca Hall and Andy Serkis - this is a film which has many of the virtues of stage perfomance, that sense of an ensemble of professionals sparking off each other.
Nowhere is this truer than in the film's rival protagonists, Angier and Borden, the flashy aristocratic showman and the slightly loutish obsessive perfectionist; it is not just the roles, but the radically different styles of the performers who play them that count here. Hugh Jackman is a fine actor, but he is also a song-and-dance man in whose hands the comics berserker superhero, XMan Wolverine, got a matinee idol performance; Christian Bale has several times over transformed his whole bodyweight and musculature for the sake of roles.
There is a chemistry between them in their scenes together that comes from both characters' and performers' incomprehension that someone in the same trade could be so very different in their approach; part of the way that Nolan does his job of film-making is his absolute confidence in the professionalism of everyone else involved. And confidence in well-oiled machinery, and sparks that fly only when supposd to, is the true accomplished magic we agree not to see through.