The Illusionist (which I, though a big Nolan fan, prefer slightly to The Prestige) feels like a film entirely of the era in which it is set — its “magic” derives in part from the tone palette of its cinematography and in larger part the wonder we as an audience share with everyone in the story who isn’t Eisenheim (Ed Norton). The actors are well known but still the stakes of a small town love story set against royal intrigue hit home in a very visceral way (it must be noted that Paul Giamatti is transcendent as Chief Inspector Uhl). Somehow, some way, the film artfully delivers a taste of its otherworldly subject matter to us.
The Prestige feels quite specifically like a Nolan film with famous actors “performing” their roles both in the film and in turn as magicians. I think it is right to call it a film about obsession, not magic. We do not wonder (for the most part) along with each magician’s audience because we see behind the curtain. We get to see the dedication and obsession to craft and one-upmanship that, while revealing about the character of certain people in the world, doesn’t provide “magic” as many great films do. It instead pays attention to the proverbial man behind the curtain and is no less a successful film for it — if success is measured here by artfully fulfilled purpose.
And yet…there is an ultimate optimism in the former that is entirely absent from the latter. I believe that to be, as Adam noted, the “congenital moroseness” of Nolan holding steady — the controlling and power hungry manipulate our world. Why should the perceived “magic” of filmmaking be any different?