The Prestige (2006, directed by Christopher Nolan) is a more challenging, ambitious, and complex film than The Illusionist, to which it can naturally be compared, since both films are about illusionists, magicians, and both appeared around the same time. The Prestige narrates the competition of two magicians, Robert Angier (stage name: the Great Danton) played by Hugh Jackman and Alfred Borden by Christian Bales. The plot is somewhat convoluted and melodramatic. One magician is a better entertainer while the other is a better magician. Each is jealous of the other. Jackman resents Borden because early in their career he tied a knot that may have led to the death of Jackman's wife, an escape artist. He also resents Borden because he is the better magician. They steal secrets from each other, sabotage one another's acts, and become increasingly obsessed not only with success but with prevailing over the other. The story focuses on an ultimate illusion, where Christian Bale's character seems to transport himself across the stage instantaneously. Jackman becomes obsessed with learning how the illusion was performed. He performs his own version of the illusion and uses it to advance his career. Ultimately the film focuses on the corrosive effects of ambition and obsession.
As complex as the film's story line is (there are numerous flashbacks and jumps forward, false and real clues, and so on), it succumbs in the end to a conventional sort of ending, clues to which have been planted throughout. It also resorts to a device better suited for science fiction—the scientist Nicola Tesla appears in the film. His invention of a teleportation device figures into the story. Tesla never invented such a device, though hundreds of patents are attributed to his name. In the film Edison and Tesla are rivals, and Edison sends agents out to spy on his rival. Since the film is about illusionists—performers who seem to perform magic through tricks, sleights-of-hand, and deception—the introduction of a science fiction device into the plot seems contrived and artificial. The film even convinces us that it is sympathetic to one character who turns out to be the real villain—at the end we are convinced to switch our allegiances, though ultimately both the main characters are fairly reprehensible.
Excellent performances by a cast that includes, in addition to Bales and Jackman, Scarlett Johansson and Michael Caine, distinguish the film. David Bowie also appears (as Tesla), though his performance is mannered and affected.
Like The Illusionist, The Prestige is a period and costume piece. It's set in late-19th century England (London) and America.
Whatever the inconsistencies and improbabilities, The Prestige is entertaining. It's a dark study, bitter and bleak in its assessment of its main characters, who do whatever is necessary to get what they want.
The New York Times review observed: "'The Prestige' is a triumph of gimmickry, a movie generous enough with its showmanship and sleight of hand to quiet the temptation to grumble about its lack of substance." In a sense, especially in the final unraveling of the plot, where everything comes clear, the film presents itself as an illusion—we relish the deceptions, are intrigued by the explanations, and are moved by the human consequences.