A century ago in London, stage magicians are afforded celebrity status. Good ones can reach the heights of modern-day pop stars. Robert Angier and Alfred Borden are just getting their start in the business, working with a magic "engineer" named Cutter in the service of a mediocre older magician. When a dangerous trick goes wrong onstage, resulting in the death of Angier's wife, it begins a deep and bitter feud between the two men that will last the length of their careers.
Angier is the superior showman, and he more easily becomes a heralded magician and box-office draw. Borden, often impoverished with his wife and young daughter, is a little wooden onstage, but he's far better at designing jaw-dropping illusions. As their acts of revenge against each other grow more malicious, Angier becomes obsessed with one of Borden's illusions, calling it the "greatest magic trick I have ever seen."
Intent on stealing both the secret and effective performance of the trick, Angier travels to America to track down the reclusive Nikola Tesla in Colorado Springs. He's convinced that Tesla helped design Borden's great trick through his experiments in the developing field of electricity. He offers to pay Tesla any amount of money to build the same apparatus for him.
Back in London, Angier's beautiful assistant Olivia has become a pawn to both men and the mistress of one. Each seeks to use her to get at the other and uncover his secrets. And when Angier unveils a mysterious new illusion (or is it?) he acquired in America, it becomes clear that each man will do absolutely anything to finally defeat the other.
In a dark film where things are rarely what they seem, you must traverse the entire story before identifying what positive elements may exist. At the very least, The Prestige shows the destructive power of revenge, obsession and self-ambition. Those who can't let go of a need to win, a need to "know," a need to execute their own view of justice suffer ever-escalating consequences for their refusal to forgive and accept.
From stage, magicians make vague claims about supernatural power as part of their acts. And one never-explained "trick" with unfathomable implications to the human soul is implausibly attributed to "science." Offstage, a few characters briefly consider whether Angier or Borden may be exercising "real" magic and the audience is left to wonder the same. By and large, though, the focus is on the spiritual emptiness of these two competing illusionists, not their access to spiritual forces beyond this realm.
Angier is shown shirtless in bed with his wife, as the couple begin kissing. For a while, Borden lives with a woman outside of wedlock. One of the magicians is seen making out with Olivia, who wears cleavage-revealing period outfits both onstage and in the bedroom. A nude painting is briefly seen.
Although the amount of actual blood shown is limited, the body count piles up, sometimes in extraordinarily mysterious ways. Several central characters are killed, some maliciously. Two are drowned, two are hanged (one is a suicide) and two are shot at close range in full view of the camera. Another is buried alive. The rivalry between the magicians leads to falls through trap doors and the intentional sabotage of tricks involving guns and mechanical apparatuses. The results are damaged legs, bloodied (and lost) fingers and a dead bird or two. Several corpses are shown, including one laid out in a morgue (still intact).
Interestingly, the relative restraint shown by the filmmakers while detailing this violence actually seems to give it more realistic weight. And it adds to the sense of dread as viewers anticipate the next attack.
Crude or Profane Language
Aside from five or so uses of the English profanity "bloody," harsh language includes using God's name for swearing two or three times, along with scattered uses of "d--n" and "bastard."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Drinks are downed in pubs and restaurants. One character, whom I shall intentionally leave unnamed here, is a drunkard whose alcoholism results in negative consequences for himself and others. Borden's wife (one can only assume they eventually got married, considering the timeframe) turns to drink as the weight of her husband's secrets wears her down. Borden is also shown drunk at least once.
Other Negative Elements
The entire story involves deception, double crosses, secrets and sabotage. (However, none of those things yield positive results.)
Working from a novel by Christopher Priest, Batman Begins director Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan (who co-wrote this screenplay), build into their film a promise, of sorts. You'll be satisfied and amazed by the time we deliver "the prestige," they seem to be saying as they steadily set the stage and raise the stakes onscreen. (The prestige, they tell us, is the part of a trick where the magician performs the mind-boggling conclusion to his best illusion.)
The Nolans kept that promise for me, pulling off the whole tricky nonlinear-in-plain-sight sleight of camera thing without tipping me to some of the final dark-and-astounding secrets. So as a puzzle, the film succeeds wildly. As a story, however, the sense that you can never quite trust the motivations of these often-unsympathetic characters kept me from fully engaging emotionally in what happens to them.
Taking a very different cinematic approach than Neil Burger's blurry, historical magician tale The Illusionist (which arrived in theaters only a month or so before The Prestige), the Nolans' team creates realistic period set pieces for London and Colorado Springs but films them through clear-eyed camera lenses and with modern angles. The result is that the film feels authentic to its era, but with the nostalgic "period movie" barrier between screen and audience removed. That immediacy is both fresh and a little cold.
Perhaps the Nolans' greatest trick of all is to make us forget that we're watching Wolverine, Batman (and his butler!), Gollum and David Bowie. Instead, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Andy Serkis and even Bowie slip convincingly into their dark Victorian personas. And they are dark. It gives nothing away to reveal that this is not a feel-good story. By the time the lights come up, the tone rings much closer to that of a horror movie than a period drama. In spite of a certain circumspection related to how the movie presents some of its sobering themes (the willingness to maim and kill for one's own selfish obsessions, chief among them), the Nolans unleash the monsters of the human soul right before our eyes, subjecting their characters to the harsh consequences of their own hubris, refusal to own up to wrong choices and vengeful spirits. Love, happiness, decency and restoration are all sacrificed for the sake of self-glory, deception and the defeat of rivals.
In a way, The Prestige challenges the very notion of a successful magician—at least of that era. As Angier describes it, the audience longs to believe, even for a moment, that there's something unexpected and unknowable beyond this cruel, mundane world. The magician delivers that by creating an elaborate deception. But what part of his own soul and identity must he sacrifice to become such a skillful liar? And can anyone ever truly love another, or even himself, for reaching the top of the illusionist's ladder by becoming the most secretive, the least honest, the furthest from the light of day? For these two masters of the craft, anyway, the film's answer is "absolutely not."