BBC2: Saturday 12 December, 10.45pm
Welsh-born Christian Bale has been making films for almost thirty years, yet he won’t turn 42 until the New Year. Since his impressive 1987 screen debut as schoolboy Jim Ballard in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, Bale has consistently turned in fine performances in a wide-ranging roster of roles, from the domestic drama of 1997’s Metroland and the glam rock scene of 1998’s Velvet Goldmine, to the dragon-slaying of 2002’s Reign of Fire and the hellraising of 2005’s Harsh Times. Even in big-deal blockbusters like The Dark Knight trilogy, he’s an actor, not a star, always attracting good notices but receiving precious little recognition.
Oddly, his solitary Oscar came for one of his few missteps, mugging furiously opposite Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter (2010). The film Bale should have won for is American Hustle (2013); he’s brilliant alongside his mysteriously nominated co-star, Bradley Cooper. Ditched from The Beach when Leonardo DiCaprio became available, Bale bounced back brilliantly with American Psycho (2000), nailing a role that Leo had been too scared to play.
For The Machinist (2004), Bale dropped weight alarmingly, shedding 60lbs. Perhaps unwisely, he repeated the feat for Werner Herzog’s Vietnam POW survival drama Rescue Dawn (2006). Such rigorous dedication is central to the idea behind The Prestige, the story of rival magicians in Victorian London and Bale’s second film with Batman Begins director Christopher Nolan. The prestige is a magic trick’s pay-off. The hardest part. And the Transported Man – imagine The Fly as devised by Robert Louis Stevenson – is the most sought-after secret in magic.
Obsessed with discovering how Bale can pull off such an impossible stunt on stage, Hugh Jackman sends his mistress Scarlett Johansson to seduce the secret out of him. A pretty assistant is the surest form of misdirection, after all. This richly textured, densely plotted drama of ruthless ambition is as rich and satisfying as marbled fruitcake, beautifully acted – there are also notable supporting turns from Michael Caine and David Bowie (who had to be coaxed into playing maverick scientific pioneer Nikola Tesla) – and constructed with a conjuror’s skill. “He stole my life,” fumes Jackman. “I’m going to steal his trick!” What Jackman will learn is that sacrifice is the ultimate price of a good trick. And The Prestige is one great trick.