"The secret impresses no one," Michael Caine's character reminds his proteges in The Prestige. In other words, you better have something else up your sleeve besides actual "magic" because magic is lousy entertainment. It's cold and impersonal and usually has no dramatic heft. Most magic tricks are performed at a quick pace because the whole thing depends on a moment's misdirection and because if it didn't go by quickly, no one would ever sit for it. Even when it's successful, a magic trick earns nothing but a polite clap. Christopher Nolan should have thought harder about this, because his film has the same deficiencies. All of its energy goes into structure and the concealment of hollow secrets. The film's backbone is an elaborate timeline that moves backwards, splits into two threads and then wobbles forward again, leaving the actors without a leg to stand on. Nolan's much-enjoyed puzzleboard picture Memento had a reason for its structural acrobatics, but The Prestige just wants to challenge the memory and attention of the audience. This isn't a movie, it's a game of Concentration.
Turn of the century London is the setting for a friendly rivalry between two up-and-coming magicians, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. Jackman sports a west-of-the-Rockies American patter while Bale puts on an Eastend Cockney brogue that probably earned him high-fives from Michael Caine. Jackman's wife, played by where-are-they-now actress Piper Perabo, is killed early on in a scary water-tank trick that goes wrong. When Jackman blames Bale, the rivalry gets un-friendly. Jackman turns up at Bale's bullet-catching show and replaces a stage charge in his pistol with a real bullet. He becomes even more irate when Bale makes a great leap forward in the magic world by coming up with that rarest of things -- an interesting trick. It's a little something called The Transporting Man. He steps into a box on one side of a stage and then instantly re-emerges from an identical box on the other side of the stage. Hmmm...how does he do that? It's not a spoiler to tell you that there's no satisfying answer.