How it all goes down:
Set at the end of the 19th century, the Prestige follows the story of two rival magicians: Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale.) The two magicians were originally friends and performed regularly together as shills for "Milton the Magician." Michael Caine also features John Cutter, as Milton's Ingenuier (stage engineer) and Piper Perabo plays Angier's wife Julia who is Milton's assistant. When Julia dies in a stage illusion as the result of Borden's actions, Angier instantly begins to hate him and starts to bear a grudge. The two quickly become rivals. The rest of the film focuses on them constantly trying to outcompete the other by coming up with more and more original and new tricks.
The Prestige was directed by Christopher Nolan. He also directed Memento and Inception, so there was no doubt that this film would be a mind-boggler and a mind-boggler it certainly is. The film begins with Alfred Borden going on trial for Robert Angier's murder and then there is an extended flashback explaining what has led to this event. Nolan constantly cuts back and forth from the two different timelines, which does make the film slightly confusing and also difficult to follow. However, I also argue that this is a strength of the film too. I think that the cross-cutting makes the film more engaging for the viewer as it demands more of the viewer's attention.
Another reason why I liked the film was its subject matter. I haven't seen too many films about magic so this was new and different for me. That notwithstanding, the film isn't necessarily about magic. It more focuses on the showmanship and misdirection that is present within magic. It made me think of "magicians" like David Blaine and Derren Brown who aim to entertain an audience as much as they amaze them. Also, I don't think showmanship and misdirection is something that I've ever really thought about that much, but I can see why it is vital to a magician's act.
Like any Christopher Nolan film, the Prestige is multi-layered and works on a number of different levels. I really liked how this film included Nikola Tesla, played by David Bowie, and Thomas Edison and commented on the rivalry that the two shared. I thought that this was a good subplot, which reflected well the nature of the main plot.
I also really liked how the film commented on themes of obsession and devotion. It demonstrated how it is all too easy to become too focused on your work and as a result lose sight of all other aspects of your life. For example, both Alfred Borden and Robert Angier lose wives and lovers, as a result of their fierce rivalry. This rivalry culminates within the film's climax, where Alfred Borden determined to create the best trick ever, creates "the Transported Man trick," which sees him enter a cabinet on one side of the stage and then exit another cabinet on the other side. Robert Angier becomes obsessed with trying to figure out this trick and showcasing his own version. He initially uses a double, but then approaches Tesla to create a teleportation machine for him. The film built to this moment well and it was extremely dramatic.
I thought the film ended well. The twist was good, unexpected and very logical. SPOILER ALERT! It is revealed that Alfred Borden performed the Transported Man trick through the help of his secret identical twin brother who has been masquerading as his assistant. Afterwards, it is then revealed that the teleportation machine that Tesla created also creates exact duplicates of the matter it teleports. Angier was using this method to do his own version of the Transported Man trick. I thought that this was a sensible and clever way to end the film.
What didn't work:
Whilst this film is to be praised on its acting, direction, story-telling and characters, I feel that at times it skirted over some important issues which should have been focused on more. For example, due to Alfred Borden's rivalry with Robert Angier, he drives a wedge in between he and his wife Sarah who becomes so distressed at his husband's actions that she is driven to depression, alcoholism and suicide. Sarah's fate is only ever mentioned on screen and never explicitly shown in film. This is definitely a significant event and I think it should have received more screentime than just one or two lines.
Another example sees Robert Angier falling in love with his new assistant Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson) but he drives her into Borden's arms after he sends her to spy on Borden for him. Again, Olivia and Borden's relationship is only really talked about the film and it isn't given a great deal of screentime. I would have been very interested to watch the beginning of Olivia and Borden's relationship, rather than just see it be talked about.
What was ugly:
The ugly side of obsession and devotion is portrayed in this film when Alfred's twin voluntarily agrees to have two of his fingers chopped off to make the Transported Man trick seem realistic. In an earlier part of the film, Borden performs the Bullet Catch trick, but loses two fingers, as the result of sabotage by Robert Angier.
This was film was engaging, different and very original. It was interesting and had great acting and characters. I really liked the film's narrative style, but I felt that it the film left just a little too much out. This notwithstanding it is still clear to see why magicians were held in such high regard in the 19th century, as much as pianists in the 21st century.