"Every magic trick consists of three acts,'' explains Michael Caine at the top of "The Prestige,'' provoking us into a state of wary alertness that we will hold until the curtain falls, more than two hours later. The prestige is the final act: "the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance.'' It is the piece de resistance, the communal release of breath, when objects or people that disappeared in the first act reappear to general astonishment.
"The Illusionist,'' the period magic drama starring Edward Norton, was such a sleeper hit because it was both heartfelt and relatively predictable: It satisfied our desire for just conclusions and our need to feel smart.
There are multiple prestige moments in "The Prestige,'' Christopher Nolan's demonically entertaining magic fest, but they are neither just, nor romantically cathartic, nor conclusive, nor entirely foreseeable. Expect to leave exhilarated and more than a bit disturbed.
Set in London at the turn of the 20th century, "The Prestige'' tracks the spiraling game of one-upmanship played by two celebrity magicians who began their careers as co-apprentices and descended into a perilous rivalry. The turning point for Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman, cloudy-side-up) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale in tremendous form) is a stage act that goes disastrously awry, leaving Angier permanently embittered toward his former chum.
The sinuous and splendidly detailed screenplay was written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, a fraternal alliance that has particular resonance for this unusually nihilistic contest of wits. Framed from a prison cell where the rough-and-tumble Borden awaits a sentence for murder, the narrative jumps around in time as the two men compete for audience favor and Angier enlists his assistant and lover Olivia (Scarlett Johansson in fine vixenish mettle) to steal secrets from Borden.
Olivia is utterly up front in her stratagems, an open-book policy that reflects the film's presentation of magic. Whereas "The Illusionist'' never tipped its hand about its trickery -- Norton's wizardry seemed to benefit more from modern cinematic technology than from smoke and mirrors -- "The Prestige'' endeavors from the outset to show us the machinery behind the illusions.
I prefer the Nolan tack: It's wonderfully theatrical while providing us a (false) sense of complicity with the characters. In that manner, the filmmakers are better able to lead us down the garden path of doubt and suspicion, just like the audiences watching Borden and Angier. We watch each new stunt with a feeling of dread, and the outcome invariably justifies the anxiety.
The film's nihilistic tone is relieved by two deftly etched subplots, one involving Angier's attempts to court electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) for state-of-the-art tricks, and the other concerning Borden's mercurial attentions toward his loving wife, Sarah. As Sarah, Rebecca Hall emerges as the film's unqualified surprise. While this luminous British stage actress drops from sight sooner than one might wish, we fully anticipate that she will reappear, prestige-enhanced, in many films to come.