Like the two roguish, turn-of-the-century London magicians who propel its plot, “The Prestige” knows that the secret behind a good trick isn’t nearly as important as the artifice in which the trick is wrapped. This precept is illustrated time and again as Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) engage in a chilling and steadily-escalating struggle of magical one-upmanship, and it appears that the same principle is at work behind Christopher Nolan’s latest directorial effort. The magic of the film lies not in the big secret that produces the illusion — a secret which may prove startlingly obvious — but in the effect that illusion has on the viewer.

Such a sentiment is refreshing in the world of contemporary cinema, where so many films are willing to bend their plots — and the audience’s minds — into pretzels to advance ridiculously elaborate premises (let’s call it the “Ocean’s Twelve” phenomenon). Films like these labor under the false assumption that a more complicated or unlikely truth, once disclosed, is more gratifying than a simple one. But if “The Usual Suspects” proved anything, it’s that simple answers can be awfully effective.

“The Prestige,” which employs a disjointed chronology reminiscent of such earlier Nolan movies as “Memento” and “Batman Begins,” is perhaps the best Hollywood example of the surprise ending since “The Usual Suspects.” It also rivals that film in its tantalizing narrative ambiguities, its delicate portrayal of character relationships and its intense atmospherics. It does not take long for the audience to realize that “The Prestige” is really an artifice, an illusion as lovingly and carefully crafted as any magic show and that becoming utterly transfixed in this artifice is every bit as pleasing as discovering the true mechanism that makes it work.

The film begins, jarringly, with the drowning death of Angier, one of London’s most famous magicians who had masqueraded under the stage name of the Great Danton. Borden is present at the scene and is subsequently placed on trial for Angier’s murder. Following this brief and mystifying beginning, the audience is carried back in time to the origin of the two men’s careers, when both of them were apprentice stagehands and aspiring magicians. What genuine, if stiff, cordiality exists between Angier and Borden is soon shattered by a traumatic event that inflicts a gaping emotional wound on Angier and leaves Borden wondering if he is partially responsible. The two men advance as rival magicians with radically different lives: Borden attains a seemingly idyllic family existence, while Angier is haunted by bitterness and resentment, most of it directed toward Borden.

The men are different as magicians, as well. Angier, despite his shortcomings, is a consummate showman capable of dressing up the standard illusionist’s repertoire with a flamboyant, sensationalistic presentation. Borden, who lacks his counterpart’s flair for drama, nevertheless possesses a deeper, more penetrating creative genius that leaves his professional peers baffled. When Borden debuts his “Transported Man” trick to an under-appreciative audience, Angier is left awestruck by what he sees and is soon consumed by an obsession to decipher the true secret to Borden’s trick.

Angier’s obsession drives him across the globe to America, where he visits the maverick scientist Nikkola Tesla (played to perfection by an icy-cool David Bowie) in search of the technology that will allow him to reproduce the Transported Man illusion. The rivalry between Angier and Borden soon heightens to a manic pitch, and each scene grows progressively more menacing. The stunning magician’s assistant Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johanssen) drifts like a ghost in the perilous, electrically-charged space between the two men, falling in love with them one at a time and threatening to betray each of them at different junctures. Regarding the whole affair with morbid fascination is Cutter (Michael Caine), the veteran engineer who has constructed apparatus for many a magician and who is (almost) as mystified as Angier by the true nature of Borden’s trick.

For this review to reveal that secret would be unkind, to say the least. Yet as ingenious as the final revelation is when it arrives, far more ingenious is the madly taut ambience which Nolan’s film cultivates around its two central characters. Each scene seems loaded with gunpowder, liable at any moment to unleash the most sinister and unspeakable forces upon the viewer, yet all the while winking a subversive eye. Like a magic show, “The Prestige” is a film best viewed with a heavy dose of credulity, keeping in mind that nothing can ever be quite what it seems.

The Prestige

Dir: Christopher Nolan

Buena Vista Pictures