The Prestige tries to make the point that it's better not to know the truths behind an illusion, and does so by making these truths weird and confusing. Still, the set-up is entertaining and often absorbing.
Based on a 1995 World Fantasy Award-winning novel by British writer Christopher Priest, The Prestige tells the story of Angier and Borden (Hugh Jackman and a thick-accented Christian Bale), two turn-of-the-century stage magicians who develop a deadly rivalry where each attempts to sabotage and/or discredit the other. Eventually, Angier attempts to outdo Borden's greatest trick with help from Nikola Tesla (a well-cast David Bowie, having a great time), resulting in a series of (literal) double-crosses and a science fiction twist.
Director Christopher Nolan, who co-wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, returns to his Memento style of storytelling by framing the film as a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks, showing the genesis of the rivalry, Angier's interactions with Tesla and Borden in the present on trial for an apparent murder. These techniques serve to clarify some points the novel left ambiguous, but even at 2 hours 15 minutes, the film still doesn't find time to truly develop the parallels between Bale and Jackman's characters, or give supporting players Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson much to do besides comment on the magicians' obsession with one another.
Although Nolan does a terrific job of recreating Victorian England, one wishes the film had placed the characters' conflict in more context by explaining the popularity of stage magicians, or why Tesla has a rivalry with Thomas Edison. There are also one too many plot twists involving fake beards.
The Prestige pulls a few narrative rabbits out of its hat at the end that leave the audience with much to think about, but these magicians would be better off if more of their secrets had been revealed.
The Prestige opens Friday across the Triangle.