If one movie could restore Hollywood with the wonder and fanaticism that was once the industry’s hallmark, it might be Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige.” In its last half century, film has lost the ability to thrill and awe (now harder to inspire in a modern audience) and is attempting to reverse the process with technical tinkering. Though far from perfect, and complex enough to be decried as jumbled, “The Prestige” is an ambitious attempt to intrigue in a way the movies haven’t for some time.

Steven Neff
“One time, I caught a fish. It was this big.” “No way.” “Way.” (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

And if that’s not enough, it pits Batman against Wolverine. Even Thomas Edison gets in on the villainy.

The film centers on Alfred Borden (Christian Bale, “Batman Begins”) and Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman, “X-Men”), two aspiring magicians in early-20th-century London. An accident resulting in the death of Angier’s wife (possibly Borden’s fault) divides the two friends, and their fight for domination of their art swells to murderous bounds. When Borden succeeds at his ultimate trick, “The Transported Man,” Angier scours the world to discover his rival’s secrets. But Borden’s shocking secret is just the beginning, for, like any good magician, Angier has something up his sleeve too.

With such a rich plotline, “The Prestige” is a satisfying experience, both casually and intellectually. It’s engaging, but not just for Nolan’s top-notch direction. Though the screenplay occasionally drags, the film never allows the audience to relax. It builds layers of mystical intrigue and ensnares viewers into peeling back each layer on their own. As such, there are few grand revelations; the profound secrets are only implicitly explained – surely to perplex passive viewers and leave some specifics forever up for debate.

And outstanding acting never hurt a film. Bale, Jackman and Michael Caine (“Batman Begins”) are superb, their presence only an enticing whisper within the film’s fragile fantasy world. The epitome of understatement, Bale’s sly, elusive turn as Borden is nearly flawless, even if, as usual, he tends to mumble too much. Much like the grim humility he brought to the usually flashy Batman role, Bale’s signature is all over this role, complete with the arcane stubbornness that first won him raves at age 12 in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun.”

Jackman’s Angier is Borden’s opposite – a showman, forever beaming and bowing at ceaseless applause. Even so, Jackman keeps the character grounded, radiating the somber reality of human fallacy even as another broad smile envelops his face. And what can you say about the esteemed Caine, who insists upon stealing every scene in every one of his films? Perhaps just that he’s very successful here.

“The Prestige” unites fine performances and inspired direction with the vital ingredient that is often overlooked – a thrilling storyline. And to think that this was called a side project between bigger things for Nolan, Bale, Caine (now working on the sequel to “Batman Begins”) and Jackman (who stars in the much-anticipated “The Fountain” opening later this year). Steeped in suspense and splendor, “The Prestige” is unique among films of our era because it presents the impossible as a unbelievable contingency.

4 out of 5 stars

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