The Prestige is an excellent film about the rivalry between two magicians, one the great magician and one the great showman.
Now Hugh Jackman on the other hand is not particularly known for his physical devotion to the roles, although he actually has done that for several films though usually not in to the degree of Bale's, and to be particularly blunt is not referred often as a great actor. Jackman though is often noted for his personal charm and showmanship, especially due to his background in the musical theater. Again like Bale, this appears to be especially clever casting as Robert Angier is not meant to be a great magician since he does not come up with the tricks himself, but he is known for his ability to win over a crowd. Well Jackman certainly seems to be quite the fit here as well as he has the particularly outgoing manner in many of his performances. Each fitting into these molds is incredibly effective in showing the divide between the two men not only as a magicians but also through their differing personalities.
At the beginning of the story chronologically speaking this does not matter as they simply are both assistants to another magician who have at least friendly enough working relationship with one another. This quickly changes though when Angier's wife is killed in a dangerous trick they may or may not have been caused by Borden accidentally. It is a fantastic scene for Jackman where he shows the uncontrollable grief that will propel Angier to have a personal vendetta against Borden. Angier quickly cements the permanent animosity between the two when he purposefully shoots off two of Borden's fingers in a fit of anger. Jackman in fact is rather effective in the way he portrays Angier's hatred as he plays in the bursts of an intense hatred as though there are moments of his memory of his wife that force this out of him, and propel him down this dangerous path.
While their feud begins we also see the two begin each of their personal careers as a stage magician. With Bale we see Borden's act which actually has a distinct lack of charisma about it, which actually works quite well in showing Borden's inability to fully capture the audience's imagination. What Bale does convey so well is that internalized intensity about the man. Although it is not until the end of the film where we actually learn what exactly Borden is doing Bale does absolutely convey the drive in the man. There is constant conviction in Bale's performance as he seems to have this dire secret only he knows, and no one else is allowed to foresee. In a certain way Bale is colder to we the audience as well as Bale does carry himself in a less open fashion than Jackman does, Bale though makes this the nature of Borden which is particularly compelling to watch.
Jackman, as Angier tries his hand at his own career, gets to present his skills as a showman. Interesting enough The Prestige may actually be one of the best examples of Jackman's personal charm actually translating to one of his performances, although here it is refined to for a specific intent. Yes Angier is often more lively and outgoing than Borden when we see him at a personal scale, but the real charm of the man appears when he is performing onstage. Jackman is just about perfect in these scenes capturing the grandeur of the method that Angier employs on stage. Jackman builds the presentation of Angier's own tricks, and shows the way in which he makes them seem better than Borden's original. Jackman brings the needed charisma in these scenes as he creates the broad appeal of the magic trick making it a true even simply to witness what is happening.
As they respective careers take off so do their mutual obsession with one another which never truly ceases to exist. In Bale's performance it is a most curious mix in his performance as though Borden has two very different personalities at hand. At times Bale portrays Borden as certainly devoted to his trick, but more dismayed than driven in regards to his rivalry with Angier. When the issue comes up Bale portrays mostly a palatable regret more than anything else as though Borden does feel responsibility for what has happened between the two of them. Borden at these times seems altogether more gentle of a soul particularly seen in his interactions with his wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall). Bale has a genuine sweetness in these scenes as he portrays a more likable Borden who it seems would be content just to live his life without the world of duplicity involved with magic.
On the other hand though there appears to be a certain randomness involving Bale's performance as he suddenly brings a vicious intensity as Borden takes particularly extreme measures to get his own revenge against Angier. Bale makes the obsession particularly palatable in Borden in these scenes as it seems to extend into his personal life as well. In these scenes Borden starts an affair with Angier's old assistant, and has a callousness towards his wife. Bale in these scenes shows Borden to be far more aggressive in his attitudes, and altogether colder man who seems to often lack empathy. Bale again is as good at brutally course as was at being sweet. There seems to be an obvious disconnect within Borden. Bale handles both versions, if you will, of the character, but this is not a case where they seem shades of man. There seems to be something off about it.
With Angier there is not that same sort of duplicity. As I stated before Jackman plays the part as though as basically sudden outbursts of the obsession. This is not to say that Jackman portrays Angier as though he is loses his obsession then suddenly gains it. Jackman is instead quite good in mostly showing Angier as being much better than Borden at covering up this obsession. Jackman keeps his more outgoing nature most of the time to seemingly make Angier more likable, yet there is almost his own subtle coldness about him as the obsession never seems to truly leave him where it would on occasion leave Borden. A quick side note one of the few reservations I have towards Jackman in his performance as Angier's double for a trick named Root. It's an over the top caricature by Jackman. He's suppose to be a bit much, but Jackman plays up the act a little too much to be funny.
Of course everything is turned on its head when all is spoiled with the twists being revealed. One of the twists is that Angier is still alive, even though at the beginning of the film it appears he has drowned with Borden being sentenced to hang for having caused it. This is revealed to Borden by Angier visiting Borden under his real name Lord Caldlow. Bale is outstanding in the scene as he rather realistically portrays the complete disbelief in Borden, and is particularly affecting as Borden pleads to Angier to reveal the truth. A slight sour point comes for Jackman once again as his Caldlow demeanor is also a bit on the caricature side of things, which is especially noticeable in the reveal since Bale is so good in that scene. Thankfully Jackman redeems himself with his final scene as Angier's reveals his "trick". Jackman is great in his final scene as he portrays the sad end result of Angier's obsession in his dying moments. Jackman has such a desperation and fear as Angier reveals the risk of his trick, but is also quite moving as he still hints at a final pride of finally pulling off his greatest illusion.
There is yet another twist as it revealed that there is not one but two Borden as he had a twin the entire time. This reveal is a particularly effective twist because it does not only hold up to scrutiny it actually only makes the film all the more interesting on re-watch. One of the reasons for this is Bale's performance which suddenly makes perfect sense when you realize there are two of them as one has been hidden all along in Borden's silent partner Fallon. This makes their final scene together particularly affecting as the brothers finally, in public anyway, seem to recognize each other as brothers and Bale is actual quite heartbreaking as he creates the strong kinship between the two that we only really see in that scene. Bale realizes the twist in his performance by carefully creating each brother even while you're not aware of it, and gives a particularly compelling portrait of two men who share the same life yet are never the same man.