What "The Prestige" does very well is recreate a period of show business history near the turn of the century in which competition between magicians was serious and intense. The workings of the complicated illusions are gorgeously brought to life via smartly detailed apparatus that replicate the actual mechanics of Victorian legerdemain.
Much of the film rings very true, such as the all-consuming obsessions of the lead characters to be the best and outdo all others. It's an easy step to accept that such unwavering determination spills over into deadly territory, as rival magicians suave Rupert Angier (a riveting performance by Hugh Jackman) and audacious Alfred Borden (Christian Bale effortlessly playing a brooding lower-class Brit) each seek to wreak continuing revenge upon the other.
The story, though adapted from a novel, feels like a perfect fit for director Nolan's sensibilities, as the machinations of the two men become increasingly convoluted during a back-and-forth tug of wits that keeps you guessing in the style of Nolan's "Memento." As the game grows increasingly deadly, and threatens to consume all they love, the film becomes a fascinating study in single-mindedness.
The work is epic in sweep, beautifully filmed, and strongly acted. The only odd note in casting is David Bowie as Nikola Tesla (he looks nothing like the actual Tesla, if you care about these sort of things, and his appearance calls attention to itself as superstar casting often does), but Mr. Bowie holds his own. Solid performances are all around, with Michael Caine adding dignity and depth as the old master, Scarlett Johanssen as the as the lovely stage assistant who becomes the third point in a twisted love triangle, and even Andy Serkis (Gollum!) in a memorable supporting role.
The introduction of Tesla adds yet another twist, as the film shifts from real-but-possible stage illusion to steam-punkish sci-fi. This transition is a hard note to pull off, since the beginning of the film doesn't quite suggest such a direction, but if you're willing to let Nolan lead you on the journey into increasingly fantastic realms, the narrative rewards you with thought-provoking moral and dramatic exploration of the issues raised.
A truly entertaining movie, and an original, unusual, dark ride -- well worth seeing in a theater for its grand scope and vision.
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