"Are you watching closely?" someone asks at the beginning of "The Prestige" (it would be interesting to know who whispers that at the beginning, but it's so soft and indeterminate of voice that you can't tell).
And then, while Michael Caine explains the parts of a magic trick (The "Present," the "Turn," and "The Prestige") you're shown images, then a simple magic trick performed for a child, then, another elaborate magic trick gone awry with the murder of one main character, for which the other main character is arrested and sentenced to death.
That is the "Present" of the film, and while everything you see is absolutely true and occurs in the film, it is not what you think it to be (the "Turn") and when all is revealed (which will occur anywhere between the end of the film and a few hours after it ends) it is then it will occur to you that it is "The Prestige" that leaves you a little disappointed.
Oh, it does everything well. The period details. The terrific cast. The conceits. But, like most of Christopher Nolan's films ("Memento," "Insomnia," "Batman Begins"), you leave not entirely satisfied, while acknowledging that it was all a terrific idea for a movie, and it sure started well...but Nolan seems to be a director who puts more care into the beginning of his films, then just sort of lets his last act "happen." He manages to tie everything up well enough, but never with any real style or a fluorish enough to enervate any audience. "Well, there it is," he seems to say at the end. C'mon, Chris. Sell it a bit more. Or give us an added context. A final ironic jab. Nope. You're left to think about it, and when you've thought it through, sing "Is That All There Is?"
I went with my sister, who's a huge Hugh Jackman fan, and Jackman doesn't disappoint. He can be bland ("Swordfish," anyone?) or he can command (The "X-men" series) and here, he's terrific. Christian Bale, after making the star-making turn of his career with Nolan ("Batman Begins") sinks into "character actor" mode, and mumbles through a credible cockney accent that can be understood 1/2 the time (*cough*), while Michael Caine does another quietly supporting role that makes you appreciate him all the more. There's is a terrific example of stunt casting of David Bowie as Nicola Tesla that makes doesn't seem like a stunt at all, but a canny use of Bowie's exotic persona (Scarlett Johanssen's role seems more like the stunt, frankly--a 100 watt star in a 40-watt role), and Andy Serkis reminds you again how versatile he is even when actually seen.
Based on Christopher Priest's novel (no, he's not the comic-book writer), it's a worthy project to separate Nolan's "Batman" movies.
Rating: a matinee ticket (all the better for dinner discussion).