"There's a bit of magic in everything and then some loss to even things out." – Lou Reed
Every act of magic consists of three parts: the Pledge, the Turn, and The Prestige. The magician takes the ordinary something, a deck of cards, a bird, or a man, and makes it do something extraordinary. The audience in the theatre needs to see it's indeed real, normal… but it probably isn't. This is the way the pivotal character Harry Cutter (Michael Caine), the engineer who invents complicated tricks to supply the illusionists, opens this "tricky" story about magic, sacrifice, and disappointment, based on a novel of the same name by Christopher Priest and adapted into a screenplay by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. The knot of the plot is about two 19th century magicians whose rivalry turns deadly when a magician performs an ultimate magic trick.
An American magician named Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is married to Julia (Piper Perabo) whose accidental death inside a water tank during a magic session turns him angry at world, specially towards his professional rival, low-class British Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), whom he considers guilty of practicing a Langford knot on Julia which she couldn't slip off underwater.
Director Christopher Nolan is occasionally ambiguous at a moral level about the conflict between self-respect and respect for others, as in his masterpiece Memento (2000). Many viewers of the film complained about the numerous loose ends the story and its twists left, but my advice would be to try to watch closely and re-tie the knot. On the surface it's another of Nolan's defiant puzzles to watch and ponder about, but I made a trip – not literal – to the obsession which haunts the detached Angier, and I finished this pretense accepting something that makes much more sense to me.
Initially I was surprised about the secondary relevance of the female characters: Sarah Borden (British actress Rebecca Hall), Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson) and the aforementioned Mrs. Angier (Piper Perabo) seemed puppets in the deceivers'/magicians' hands, but we must keep in mind the story is set in the Victorian era in Colorado Springs. Still, it was a crude contrast to the male/female power games thrown by Nolan. The women at some points in the film were mere "assistant-dolls" who would passively exhibit themselves and play a supporting role to the "brains", especially Olivia, a flighty butterfly with party-girl manners, comfortable in her roles of mistress and sexual magnet on stage. The innocent Julia's blind trust in the autodidact Alfred's rope strategies resulted in her death, and the goodness of Alfred's wife, Sarah, is destroyed by the malevolence of his genius.
The sci-fi part — when Angier (now auto-nicknamed "The Great Danton" in honour of his deceased wife) meets the eccentric electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and his assistant Alley (Andy Serkis) — was handled in a romantic "H.G. Wells" style, showing us a gloomy forest filled up with duplicated black cats and top-hats, enticing us into a deliberately confusing plot-trap. As Tesla says: "The extraordinary is not permitted in science and industry", and so the magic field should be virgin territory for the purely unknown, and "The world only tolerates a change at a time." But, even surrounded by wise scientific men, Robert Angier has replaced his life for his obsession. And after finding a double for his sessions in Gerald Root, an out-of-work actor, he wants to learn the definitive trick to make him stand out and win over Alfred Borden. Although he knows he will have to risk everything for it, even his dignity, he discovers that's "why every magic trick has a third act. The hardest part. The Prestige."
Meanwhile, lustily intelligent Borden, as he once confessed drunkenly to his tormented wife, "Secrets are my life, Sarah. Our life", has chosen a similar fate to Angier's, living a "double" secret life.
But the ambiguity of Nolan's revelation is as sharp as his magician's minds; pay attention to the painful exchange of dialogue between Alfred and Sarah, when she believed he suffers a split-personality disorder because of his profession and was convinced some days he loved her and other days he didn't, and also exposed in the familiar retelling from Borden's diary stolen by Olivia for her lover, the notebook Angier tries to decipher ("I want the method, not the keyword. I don't even know if the secret is in your notebook").
Both magic stalwarts were two sides of a coin, but Bale's character got ahead ("This is what a good trick costs. Risk. Sacrifice.") and in the end, he wants to prove to us he hasn't been fooled by Angier's platonic ideation of magic: "The audience knows the truth, that the world is simple. Miserable. But you could make them wonder." And my take on the final shot of "The Great Danton" is that he is a projection of Borden's fear that maybe his trick wasn't the best after all.
A key quote from The Prestige: "You want to be fooled because you're looking for the secret but you won't find it because you don't really want to know".
And the key questions of mine would be: Is worth life living without magic? And Is magic worth it without dignity?