Everyone has heard that a good magician never reveals a secret. In The Prestige, a young enthusiast learns from an old hand the reason for this rule. "No one respects you for a secret, no matter how good it is," the magician explains. "It's what you can do with the secret that they respect you for."
Ah, but it's different at the movies. For a filmmaker, a good secret revealed in the right way at the right moment can be the highlight of the act. Like a magician, the filmmaker can use misdirection to get the audience looking the other way, in order to make the climax as surprising as possible. But where the magician wants to leave the audience mystified, the filmmaker seeks to pull all the pieces together.
Adapted by director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan from the Christopher Priest novel, The Prestige has a number of secrets, cleverly wrought and carefully structured in an escalating series of dramatic revelations that may need multiple viewings to fully unravel. Tightly plotted and thematically well-crafted, the film offers converging lessons regarding seemingly harmless illusions that belie grim realities, charades that must be maintained off the stage as well as on, and the hazards of an all-important secret confederate, all coming together in climactic plot twists both haunting and unsettling.
At the same time, underlying the whole story is a central conceit that—while undeniably integral to the tale the film has to tell—may seem somewhat jarring amid the movie's 19th-century trappings of escape-artist water tanks, collapsible bird cages, hidden trapdoors, and the like. Granted its premise, The Prestige is ruthlessly bold and clever regarding the implications and consequences for its antagonists, rival London magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). The premise, though, is a lot to swallow.
Coming a couple of months after the similarly themed The Illusionist, The Prestige is the year's second Victorian-era stage-magic thriller centering on a deadly competition between a magician and his rival. The Illusionist pitted magician Edward Norton against a prince played by Rufus Sewell; The Prestige features a contest of peers, if not equals, that offers more opportunity for ever-mounting one-upmanship and direct rivalry.
The similarities to The Illusionist don't stop there. In both films, there is a woman caught between the two men, a tragic turn of events, and ultimately a question of real magic as the movie toys with life and death. Both feature strong casts and bring outstanding production values to the period setting; both also rely on expert magician and magic consultant Ricky Jay for stage cred in the performance of the magic.
Both films also emulate the three-part structure of a magic trick, as outlined by Cutter in an opening voiceover. In old-school magic parlance, the three acts are called the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige. The Pledge offers the audience assurances that nothing funny is going on (please shuffle the cards yourself; nothing up my sleeve, etc.). The Turn is the moment when something extraordinary happens (and the hankerchief is gone!). The third act, the Prestige, seals the deal—brings the handkerchief back, say. "It's not enough to make something disappear," Cutter explains. "You have to bring it back."