MILD SPOILERS possible, secrets of the film will not be revealed.
Here's something to watch for when you go to a movie these days: If the film is ANY kind of mystery and/or thriller, and it opens with a character describing in careful detail a seemingly small point of philosophy or procedural concept, PAY ATTENTION. Chances are this character is actually laying out the structure of the film and the mechanism of it's central twists for you. Often, the dialogue will be repeated in voice-over during a "this is what happened, get it now?" montage at the finale, allowing the film to literally explain itself without seeming hackneyed.
Here, the telltale speech is delivered early on by Michael Caine as Cutter, a builder of complicated mechanical trickery for use by stage magicians near the turn of the century. As the film opens he is mentor and friend to Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman, aka "Wolverine") and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale aka "Batman," how cool is that!!??), a pair of aspiring magicians toiling as asisstants/audience-plants to their more famous counterparts. Cutter's speech describes for us the key points of any great magic act: The Pledge ("look, a bunny!") The Turn ("Poof! The Bunny is gone, and there's nothing up my sleeve!") and The Prestige ("Poof! The Bunny is back!")
The film offers it's Pledge right off the bat: While performing onstage, Angier finds himself snared in a lethally booby-trapped machine, and Borden is dragged before a court and charged with his murder. (Believe it or not, this is not a significant spoiler.)
Director Christopher Nolan's much-beloved temporally-fractured narrative dives into flashbacks to tell us how we got here, letting us mee the Angier is the genial showman, while Borden is a brooding and introverted prodigy, but they are good friends until a tragic stage accident breaks up the act and drives them apart; Angier blaming Borden for the accident, Borden tormented by the possibility that Angier is correct.
The division becomes a festering career rivalry between the two men, who both embark on dual careers as up-and-coming illusionists and eachother's own saboteur; each specializing in busting up the other's trickery onstage to humiliate and/or maim him. They'll fight over everything, including the affections of a Lovely Assistant in the form of Scarlett Johanssen (here reprising her recurring role as Viagra With A Personality,) but things take a Turn (remember?) when Borden gains fame for an amazing trick which seems to defy all logic and turns Angier into a full-on obsessive, fixated on discovering his rival's secrets.
Angier's quest takes him to America and the mountain hideaway of exiled inventor Nikola Tesla (yay!) and it's here that all descriptions of plot must stop, because it's here that "The Prestige" asks you to trust it and come along as it takes an astonishingly brave leap not only into a different realm of mystery but an entirely different GENRE. What Tesla provides both to the magicians and to the film-proper I will leave a mystery, but I will say this: How you react to the coming revelations will determine how you will react to the film, period. Nolan is asking his audience to engage in something they may not have come prepared or especially willing to engage in, and in doing so he shows a tremendous trust both for his audience and in his own skill. I'm in awe.
The film stacks mystery upon mystery, and just because the subject matter and genre make it patently obvious that we're being distracted by cinematic sleight-of-hand, but just which mystery IS the distraction and which ones are "real" is at the heart of the machine. Not only is almost everyone either a professional deciever, a casual liar or both, the film deliberately has fun with our notions of linear structure: At one point, Borden experiences a portion of the story by reading a diary stolen from Angier, in which Angier expounds at length on the reading of a diary he has stolen from Borden... and it's not done with you yet! This is the sort of film fans will still be "chewing on" months from now.
It's also, it must be said, not afraid of going into dark places. Both lead characters are borderline-sociopaths when you get right down to it, and their rivalry draws real blood.. and not only their own. In addition, well... let's just say that I don't think most people will be especially glad to see how certain tricks involving small animals are actually accomplished.
You couldn't ask for a better cast for this story. Jackman, Caine, Bale and Johanssen slip into period roles like second nature; Jackman especially finally gets a chance to retract the Adamantium claws and put his finely-tuned theatrical presence to use on film, while Johanssen speaks and moves as though the mannerisms (and the, ahem, "uplifting" fashions) of the era were invented just for her.
"The Prestige" serves notice on behalf of Christopher Nolan that he is ready and willing to make full use of the clout that "Batman Begins" earned him, and it's a bullseye. This is one of THE films of 2006, one of the ones people will be talking about long after the year is done.
FINAL RATING: 9/10