Oh ho ho, it's magic, y'know? Never believe it's not so.
So, there's these two magicians with a long standing, deadly rivalry, yeah? Paul Daniels and the fat bloke that used to be married to Victoria Wood. You know the guy. Shows up on Countdown every now and again. They're locked in a deadly battle for supremacy and ultimate mastery. This film is not about them. There's another two magicians with a long standing, deadly rivalry, David Copperfield and David Blaine, locked in an eternal struggle to be the most irritating illusionist named David. This titanic battle, no matter how enduring and delicately balanced, is also not the concern of this film. This film's about Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman).
We're introduced to Angier and Borden as what amounts, I suppose, to apprentice magicians, working as audience plants, stooges and technical gophers for a stage magician to whom Angier's wife Julia (Piper Perabo) fulfills the Debbie McGee role. One stunt involves the miraculous escape of a rope bound Julia from a tank of water, slightly less miraculous once one knows that the knots are tied by two entirely arbitrarily chosen members of the audience that always happen to be Borden and Angier. Things are swell for all of four minutes before Julia and Borden decide to do a bit of experimentation in knot selection, which goes rather fatally wrong for Julia.
Angier chooses not to see this as a simple accident, leading the two to become increasingly obsessive thorns in each other's side until, in one of the opening scenes thanks to the never-ending joys (read: ended some considerable time ago) of fractured narrative, we find that Borden has been sentenced to hang by the neck until he be dead for the murder of one Robert Angier.
In broad strokes, the pair's rivalry continues and escalates throughout their burgeoning careers, coming to a head once Borden unveils his masterwork - the Disappearing Man. However, rather like the illusions our magical protagonists perform, once you know the tricks they stop impressing so allow me to veil the plot details in smoke and mirrors. NOte that thanks to my cunning misdirection and slight of hand, you now think my abject laziness is in fact consideration for an audience. That's me alright, always learnin'.
Now, our views on Christian Bale have been made clear many times in the past around these parts, namely that you could put him in an empty room and have him improvise a script on the importance of cod to the national diet and we'd happily stump up the dollarpounds to see it. Boringly, it's yet another superb performance from the man, showing Borden's transition from surly technician to flamboyant showman with captivating style.
In fact both he and a Hugh Jackman back on form after perfunctory turns in the criminally non-interesting X-Men 3 and Van Helsing perform superbly in the difficult task of making a rivalry between two at best objectionable, often downright nasty characters compelling and, more remarkably, allowing us to empathise with them. Support from both Rebecca Hall as Borden's wife and the ever impressive Scarlett Johansson as Angier's beautiful assistant is able, although their true purpose is really to give Jackman and Bale something to bounce against. More substantial is that mighty being Michael Caine's role as Cutter, creator and engineer of arcane magicks, or the seeming thereof, and he performs the statutory bang-up job you'd expect from him.
It's not all cupcakes and Jesus Juice. The plot development that bring in legendary boffin Nikolas Tesla (David Bowie) into the equation further develop into something that stretches credulity a yard too far, and much as I hold Davey Boy in idolisation as some sort of wonky-eyed music God, this film and particularly that accent really aren't playing to his strengths. While we're being negative, the only other rain I can add to this parade is that it's somewhat over-long, in common with seemingly every other film this year. In the case of The Pink Panther, at least ninety minutes too long.
Back to the glowing reports. The production design is utterly fantastic, full of ornate Victorian theatres, grimy London streets, Heath Robinson contraptions (many involving arcing electricity, which is never less than awesome) and most importantly of all, fetching headware. The hats maketh the film, as I always say. Chris Nolan's direction has the steady, assured markings of a director who knows when the story and acting is more than strong enough to carry a scene without superfluous flourishes, which has the welcome side effect of giving Tesla's gadgetry a grandiose visual motif that wouldn't otherwise have been quite so impressive.
Nolan's typical dark style fits well with a world based entirely on secrets, deception and treachery, and barring the slight runtime issues, in part caused by an over-explained ending where Angier's final trick is given the needlessly lengthy Basil Exposition treatment, there's few bone-handled pickaxes to grind with this intriguing film. It has the laudable attribute of attempting something vastly different from nigh-on every other film this year by actually creating an atmosphere and telling a story thoroughly divergent from the torrents of homogenous drivel that's threatened to overwhelm us this year. A good deal more interesting than most films produced this year, and if that's not enough reason to watch it then you're weird, and smell funny.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Christian Bale (Alfred Borden)
Michael Caine (Cutter)
Piper Perabo (Julia Angier)
Rebecca Hall (Sarah Borden)
Scarlett Johansson (Olivia Wenscombe)
David Bowie (Nikolas Tesla)
Andy Serkis (Alley)