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'The Prestige' (*** 1/2)

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Posted: Friday, October 27, 2006 10:00 pm

In these modern times, technological advancements and sophisticated storytelling techniques have allowed filmmakers to take over the role once occupied by stage magicians. Now, instead of gazing with wonder as the illusionist produces a rabbit out of his hat, audiences instead fix their eyes on movie screens, where filmmakers make the impossible seem possible. After all, a good movie can inspire you to abandon reality and believe the unbelievable - if only for a couple hours.

"The Prestige," the new film from Christopher Nolan ("Memento," "Batman Begins"), is a prime example of such showmanship. Telling the tale of two rival magicians in turn-of-the-century London, this is as much an elaborate magic trick as it is a movie. Through its considerable running length, writer/director Nolan puts on his top hat and exploits the principles of misdirection like a seasoned illusionist. When it's over, viewers may feel cheated by the simplicity of the solutions to the film's central mysteries - but there's simply no denying Nolan's skill as a cinematic manipulator.

As "The Prestige" opens, the audience bears witness to a murder - or, at least, what appears to be a murder. Following a behind-the-scenes mishap, master magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is put on trial for the murder of Rupert Angrier (Hugh Jackman), a former colleague who had recently made a name for himself by improving upon Borden's signature illusion. The film recounts the duo's sordid history via multiple story threads and time-lines: We see their early days as stage hands, and the tragedy that turned them from friends into bitter enemies. From there, Borden and Angrier embark on a rivalry that spans several years and results in more than one death.

The crux of the feud is The Transported Man, an illusion pioneered by Borden in which the magician is teleported from one side of the stage to the other, all in the blink of an eye. After becoming convinced that Borden could not possibly be using a "double" to achieve the effect, Angrier vows to discover Borden's secret, and even pursues his own version of the trick. His search leads him to Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), a real-life wizard whose experiments with electricity are as terrifying as they are astounding.

Like a magician making expert use of his props, Nolan gets the most out of his star-studded cast. Bale turns in yet another impressive performance, and Jackman's natural charisma shines through with ease. David Bowie and Michael Caine (as Angrier's mentor) fashion memorable roles out of their limited screen time. If there's a weak link here, it's Scarlett Johansson, whose thankless role as a conflicted assistant is constantly overshadowed by the central players.

The film's title refers to the final stage of an illusion, in which the magician presents the end result of his trick and revels in the audience's adoring applause. The great thing about Nolan's film is that the attentive viewer will be able to anticipate the prestige well before it is revealed. Several times throughout the movie, the answers to key questions are divulged. If you're paying strict attention, it should not be difficult to discover the true nature of Borden's existence, or the identity of Angrier's killer.

With this degree of transparency, the real question becomes: Are you watching closely?

"The Prestige" is rated PG-13 for violence.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jwallis@runbox.com.

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