At the end of the 19th Century, two stage magicians working in London become bitter rivals: Robert Angier (played by Hugh Jackman), performing under the name 'The Great Danton', and Alfred Borden (played by Christian Bale), known as 'The Professor'. They each seek to upstage the other, and when Borden develops a seemingly impossible trick that has him apparently teleporting across the stage in a second, Angier becomes obsessed with finding out how he did it, an obsession that leads him to Colorado and a meeting with a man named Nikola Tesla...
The Prestige, released in 2006, is an adaptation of the excellent Christopher Priest novel of the same name, directed by Christopher Nolan of Memento and Batman Begins fame (his subsequent project to this movie would be The Dark Knight) and sharing several cast and crew with the comic book movies, including Christian Bale and Michael Caine. The Prestige is a superb film which may actually be the finest translation of a work of literature to the screen that I've ever seen. The film is incredibly faithful to the themes and spirit of the novel, but not slavishly so. Ideas from the book that would not work well on-screen have been jettisoned, whilst the novel's modern-day framing device has been removed and replaced with a new one that focuses the story much more closely on the rivalry between Borden and Angier. At the same time, the novel's conceit of taking place entirely through the pages of the two men's diaries is actually translated successfully to the screen, and the changes made to the central twist of the novel actually make the idea even more disturbing and horrific than in the novel. As with the novel, upon finishing the film the viewer may be tempted to immediately watch it again in full knowledge of the secrets revealed at the end, whereupon it turns into a different movie.
The film's success is built around its two protagonists. Bale and Jackman turn in supremely accomplished performances (the latter possibly in a career-best performance), each having to play a complex, driven character each of whom is carrying weighty secrets and mysteries. Their escalating rivalry is particularly well-handled. Some may feel that the two characters are too obsessed with their rivalry and we don't see many other facets of their personalities, but given that the entire movie is driven by their rivalry, this is understandable. The supporting cast is also excellent, particularly Michael Caine as Angier's assistant, Cutter, Scarlett Johansson as Olivia and the curiously effective partnership of David Bowie (yes, that David Bowie) as Tesla and Andy Serkis as his helper, Alley. In fact, it feels like there's a whole other movie Nolan could go and make about Nikola Tesla that would be as fascinating to watch.
Nolan's direction, having to handle a complex, non-linear narrative and not lose the audience in confusion, is very good. At one point Olivia tells us that once you know the secret of the trick, it becomes rather obvious, and the film is like that. Rewatching the movie, it's almost incredible that you missed all the (in retrospect, obvious) clues pointing to what the truth of the story is. This is where the real success of the movie lies. Most of Priest's novels have a moment which is known as the 'Priest Effect', where the reader feels a trapdoor has opened beneath their feet and they realise everything they thought they knew was not only wrong, but perhaps never existed in the first place. The idea that this could be translated to cinema seems unthinkable, but Nolan delivers it here with considerable success. This is a movie where the rules are fluid and shift, but once you know what is going on, it all makes sense.
The Prestige (*****) is a most accomplished film, well-paced and dramatic, with a tremendous sense of mystery. It is a puzzle box of a story where all the pieces fit together satisfyingly at the end, and rewards repeated viewing. It is available on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).