In the beginning, we see a shot of many identical hats strewn across the ground outdoors, and the voice of Alfred Borden asks if we are watching closely.
Next, John Cutter, played by Michael Caine, explains the form of an illusion to a little girl. He explains how each illusion requires three parts: The Pledge, where the audience is presented with an ordinary object; The Turn, where the object is turned into something extraordinary; and The Prestige, where the object is brought back.
From there, we see Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale, tried and convicted for the death of his rival magician, Robert Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, after Angier is drowned in a tank of water beneath the stage at his performance. From his prison cell, Borden is approached by an agent of a mysterious wealthy man, Lord Caldlow. Lord Caldlow tries to buy Borden’s most successful illusion, the transporting man. But Borden won’t sell. Caldlow’s man gives Borden Angier’s diary as a showing of good faith and leaves. Borden reads Angier’s diary and recalls the events that led up to Angier’s death.
Borden and Angier worked together with Cutter as young magicians. Angier’s wife, Julia, also worked with them. During a show together, Borden ties Julia’s knots before she’s dropped into the same tank of water that later kills Angier. Julia is unable to slip the knot and drowns on stage in front of Angier.
Angier becomes obsessed with exacting revenge on Borden and views Borden an indifferent for Julia’s death. Meanwhile, Borden meets Sara and falls in love while he starts a solo career with his mysterious ingeniur Fallon. Angier exacts revenge on Borden by slipping a live bullet into a pistol during a bullet catching trick during Borden’s show. Angier shoots Borden in the hand and severs two fingers.
Angier continues to work with Cutter and a foxy new stagehand, Olivia, played by Scarlett Johansson. Angier’s career takes off but is dealt a setback when Borden sabotages an illusion that injures a member of the audience.
Eventually, Borden marries Sara and gains success with his illusion The Transporting Man. His illusion is mysterious, and nobody can guess how he does it. Angier sends Olivia to work for Borden and spy on him and steal his trick. But Olivia falls in love with Borden and double crosses Angier. She gives Angier a trick diary from Borden which sends Angier to Colorado to importune Nikola Tesla to make a machine that will allow Angier to perform the Transporting Man illusion with Angier’s trademark showmanship and upstage Borden once and for all. Tesla warns Angier not to accept the machine, but Angier persists, and the machine works.
Sara grows unhappy with her marriage to Borden, finding his seemingly dual personality and affair with Olivia more than she can handle. She hangs herself in Borden’s shop and leaves Borden with their daughter, Jess. One night, Borden sneaks backstage to see if he can learn the secret to Angier’s illusion, but he finds Angier falling into the tank of water from the beginning of the film, where he is framed for Angier’s murder.
At this point, the diary that Borden is reading in prison states that Angier, the writer of the diary, indeed framed Borden for his murder and that Angier is still alive to enjoy this victory over Borden. Lord Caldlow visits Borden in the prison having taken custody of Borden’s daughter. Lord Caldlow, however, is Angier, and Borden is heartbroken to see his daughter taken by his enemy.
Fallon pays one last visit to Borden. Borden tells Fallon to live for both of them and is soon hanged. Soon thereafter, Fallon finds Angier at his secret warehouse where he learns the method to Angier’s Transporting Man illusion: the machine built by Tesla did not transport Angier; it duplicated him. Each time Angier performed the trick, his duplicate self would appear in another location, and one of them would be killed. Fallon, however, has a trick of his own. Fallon is half of a doppelganger. Fallon and Borden are twins. Each twin, however, is both Fallon and Borden, switching as necessary to carry on their illusion that there is only one Fallon and one Borden.
Fallon shoots Angier, a murder for which he has already been convicted and reunited with his daughter, completing Christopher Nolan’s illusion.
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