"The prestige," as Michael Caine's ingenieur Cutter explains in The Prestige's opening sequence, is the third act of a magic trick - the moment an audience cheers at the reappearance of a person or object the magician has previously made disappear. Christopher Nolan's tale of rival magicians in turn-of-the-20th-century London hasn't come out of nowhere itself - it's based on a novel by Christopher Priest - but it is a very skilful work of cinematic conjuring, on a par with this filmmaker's backwards-thriller Memento. You'll need your brain switched on, and your eyes at their sharpest: the action takes place as a series of flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks, held together by narration sourced from notebooks written by authors deliberately intending to mislead the reader/viewer. Amazingly, it all makes a kind of sense, although multiple viewings may be required to establish how much exactly.
At its centre are down-to-earth Cockney family man Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), a grafter on the theatrical circuit, and aristocratic American showman Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). Attempting to one-up each other by performing the greatest tricks the world has seen, the two soon become deadly rivals: the Magic Circle's own Salieri and Mozart, its Danton and Robespierre. (Angier even performs under the stagename "the Great Danton".) In terms of Nolan's filmography, these two would appear to be period archetypes of the cop and killer in Insomnia, and the stalker and stalkee in Following; the presence of Bale even reminds us of the duality he expressed in his role as the protagonist of last year's Batman Begins.
We're in altogether tricksier territory here, though: the entire film appears to have been constructed as an extended, even extravagant pun on the homonym illusions/allusions. The misdirection includes repeatedly putting Scarlett Johansson in corsets as the magicians' glamorous assistant; asking both leads to assume more than one role, or to play against themselves in certain scenes; casting Caine in a supporting part that refers back to Sleuth as much as it does Batman Begins; and an entire subplot involving the reclusive scientist Nikola Tesla, played by a very famous rock star - anything, one suspects, to throw viewers off the scent of what's really going on between its antagonists.
Even if one does lose one's way, though, it's a fun film to get lost within, unfolding in a universe both convincing and compelling, full of secrets, shadows and slights-of-hand. Nolan has a real feel for the work of the theatrical conjurer, and just how their tricks were thought up, staged and perfected; the film might just as effectively be called Practical Magic, were that title not already claimed. Clever staging (on Nolan's part, if not his character's) leaves Angier in the bowels of the theatre, unable to receive his standing ovation upon completing his most accomplished illusion halfway through the film - a smart bit of motivating action. And in an audacious, creepy sequence shortly thereafter, Borden hijacks Angier's trick (and applause), leaving his rival suspended as a comic stooge, somewhere up in the rafters.
Yet Nolan's just as interested in the cinema as a magic trick: when Angier employs a double (an out-of-work sot, also played by Jackman) to help him pull off one vanishing act, the director initially seems content to keep the two Jackmans in separate frames, until an encounter that brings them face-to-face, thanks more to digitalisation than prestidigitation. The flashback structure requires close attention, and even then keeps us guessing; and even all the vaguely extraneous business about electricity as an emergent social force seems to tie in with the understanding that old-hat conjurers like Angier and Borden were soon to be rendered obsolete by the moving image, struck down by the shock of the new. The greatest surprise, as Nolan's film knows very well, is the one you don't see coming until it's way too late.
The Prestige screens on BBC2 tonight at 11pm.