Like many of history's and literature's great adversaries, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) begin as allies, working as audience plants for a successful stage illusionist (real-life magic expert Ricky Jay). Night after night, they "volunteer" to help the maestro as he binds his lovely assistant (and Angier's wife), Julia (Piper Perabo), with rope and lowers her into the water tank from which she then miraculously escapes.
For Angier, a dashing fop whose stage name belies his blue-blooded lineage, showmanship is everything. For Borden, a ruddy-cheeked Cockney who never hesitates to let you know that he's had to work for everything he's achieved, the illusion itself is paramount. Then one night, both things the trick and the presentation go awry, and the water tank becomes Julia's grave. A devastated Angier accuses Borden of tying the wrong knot maybe he did and from that point forward, the two men enter into a contest of revenge and one-upmanship that can seemingly end only with the demise of one of them.
Unfolding in the fragmented, overlapping manner that has become Nolan's favored storytelling style, The Prestige begins with Borden on trial for Julia Angier's murder and then flashes back to show the full bloom of a rivalry that stretches from the streets of London to the laboratory of the beleaguered mad-genius inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). There are more flashbacks within those flashbacks, before we finally wind our way back to the beginning or is it the end? of the tale.
Angier and Borden pursue each other for so long, they can scarcely recall why they fight. Certainly, it is not over Julia, whose loss is forgotten by Angier in his feverish search for the explanation behind Borden's trademark, an illusion called the Transported Man that appears to deliver its performer from one end of the stage to the other in less than the blink of an eye.
Nolan can't work up much interest in who comes out on top or in the romantic intrigue that develops when Angier sends his new assistant and lover (Scarlett Johansson) undercover to seduce the married Borden and steal his secrets. The result is a lopsided yet absorbing movie in which the director is less drawn to his main characters than to those on the periphery, including Angier's wizened illusion designer, Cutter (Michael Caine) and, by extension, all those men through the ages who have sought to bridge the gap between the real and the illusory.
The Prestige, which was filmed by Nolan with a minimum of digital chicanery, is at once a lament for the loss of the manual and a marveling at the possibilities of electricity and mechanization. In one moment of transfixing, ethereal beauty, Tesla makes a field of oversized light bulbs burst into brilliant illumination without apparent benefit of wires or generators. For all the wonderment of a Houdini or a David Copperfield, we are reminded how the true magic of the universe lies in the onward march of science and industry and in those many things we now take for granted like movies themselves that once seemed the product of some terrifying dark art.