Each element sounds fascinating: a fun plot about dueling magicians, a Victorian setting, director Christopher Nolan (of “Memento” fame), Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as said magicians. Together, all at once, they can be a bit much, but it’s mostly a terrifically entertaining and good sort of too much.
Charming and showy magician Robert Angier (Jackman) is engaged in a bitter rivalry with the talented but less charismatic Alfred Borden (Bale), which revolves around a trick of Borden’s that Angier really wants to figure out, and Borden’s role in the accidental death of Angier’s wife (in that order of importance). They disrupt each other’s acts and otherwise spar. We know from the beginning that this has led to the death of one of them.
Nolan and his screenwriting partner/brother Jonathan make the plot considerably more complicated than it is by using many flashbacks and parallel timelines. This is done with great skill, and is rarely confusing, but one is always paying close attention as to not get lost, which is part of the point. It is a form singularly suited to a movie about tricks and deception (the order in which we see things, we sense, is not straightforward).
This is a movie that never met a plot twist it didn’t like (some more obvious than others). This complexity is delivered with a straight face where perhaps a little more glee would have helped. It’s a good thing that the structure is so involved, because it means that it can take much of the movie before the audience begins to wish that these two vindictive and heartless men would just kill each other already. Neither are exactly appealing characters. But the events keep coming quickly enough that we don’t stop and think about how we don’t want to side with either of them.
This is not a strictly realist movie, though I am told by one who has read the book that the ending is considerably less kooky than it could have been. Despite its somewhat distant and mean heart, “The Prestige” is well worth seeing as a mere divertissment. Surely, a movie which features David Bowie as Nikola Tesla cannot be missed.