Like this past summer's "The Illusionist," Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige" is concerned with magicians and their secrets at the turn of the twentieth century, and is designed, as was "The Illusionist," to mislead and misdirect the audience as much as it does its characters. Watching all this, knowing that we are watching illusions and do not know the truth, is as delicious here as it was in the other film. This time it's London, and two young magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are working as audience shills for an old stage illusionist (Ricky Jay in a cameo). Both are ambitious, and when a mysterious accident on stage takes the life of Angier's wife, who is Jay's assistant during a pretend-drowning trick, Angier blames Borden for either deliberately or sloppily tying her with the wrong knot, and so a vicious rivalry begins as they each start their own careers in competition with each other.
Angier is upper-class, Borden is proletarian Cockney. Angier is the better performer on stage, winning his audience with charm and presence; Borden just cudgels his audiences with the power of his illusions. His Transported Man illusion is better than Angier's, a mystery that festers inside Angier so that he even sends his assistant/lover Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to be Borden's assistant and learn his secrets. Over time his search for an ultimate illusion takes him to the Colorado Rockies, to the laboratory of Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to have a Tesla Coil made for him that will trigger his Transported Man trick.
Nolan has constructed the film as a mosaic of both conventional timelines and extended flashbacks, sometimes within other flashbacks, that take us forward and back in time and place. The film begins with Borden on trial for the murder of Angier, and then slowly reveals the episodes and acts that led up to the trial. What makes the film work is that the characters are so well drawn, their lives and acts so believable - Johansson and Rebecca Hall as Borden's wife keep things anchored in reality with marvelously authentic performances - that we never feel we're being traduced. Michael Caine as Angier's manager and illusion engineer serves almost as a surrogate for us, and the sense of period is well maintained.
We are given to see, almost from the beginning, how death is a great part of magic, as Borden's workshop is filled with dozens of bird cages for the birds he will use in his act. Will they foreshadow other deaths to come? As with the secret of any magic act, my lips are sealed.