A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige" has just about everything I require in a movie about magicians, except ... the Prestige. We are instructed at the outset, in a briefing by Michael Caine, that every magic trick consists of three acts: (1) the Pledge, in which a seemingly real situation is set up, (2) the Turn, in which the initial reality is challenged, and (3) the Prestige, where all is set right again. An example, one not used in the film, would be (1) a woman, and it's always a woman, except with Penn and Teller, who is placed into a box; (2) the box is sawed in half, and the halves separated, and (3) magically, the "victim" is restored in one piece.
The pledge of Nolan's "The Prestige" is that the film, having been metaphorically sawed in two, will be restored; it fails when it cheats, as, for example, if the whole woman produced on the stage were not the same one so unfortunately cut in two. Other than that fundamental flaw, which leads to some impenetrable revelations toward the end, it's quite a movie -- atmospheric, obsessive, almost satanic.
It takes place in Victorian London, at a time and place where seances and black magic were believed in by the credulous. Somerset Maugham's novel The Magician captures that period perfectly in its fictional portrait of Aleister Crawley, "the most evil man in the world," who created the illusion that he really was an occult practitioner of dark forces. He had a gift for persuading women to materialize in his bed. These days, when most of us are less superstitious, it is the technical craft of a David Copperfield that impresses us. We see the trick done, but do not for a moment believe it is happening.
Houdini, the great transitional figure between "magical" acts and ingenious tricks, was at pains to explain that everything he did was a trick; he offered rewards, never collected, for any "supernatural" act he could not explain. The Amazing Randi carries on in the same tradition, bending spoons as easily as Uri Geller. And yet in Houdini's time, there were those who insisted he was doing real magic; how else could his effects be achieved?