The second of 2006's fin de siècle magician thrillers is also the better of the two. That said, it's not really fair to compare Christopher Nolan's The Prestige to The Illusionist; the two films are playing entirely different games. In this case, we have a wholly effective thriller with very little at its core; but it's hard to complain about a film this self-assured and stylish.

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, two rival magicians in the early years of Edwardian London. Giving away the plot would be a sin; let it only be said that both men are trying to create the world's greatest illusion, not for love of the craft but in order to one-up each other. Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson are on hand to aid in this war, although how they do so is best left a surprise.

In all honesty, it doesn't take much to figure out where the plot is going to twist and turn long before it gets there. But I can't persuade myself that it matters. This is not a film like The Illusionist, where the film's audience is equal to the magician's audience. For all that its plot follows the structure of a magic trick (neatly laid out for us in the opening moments of the film), The Prestige possesses a stage-eye view of the proceedings, and we are meant not to be dazzled by the trickery but complicit in the sordid ways in which it is effected.

The script is a treasure: like Nolan's Memento, it's a twisty mess of flashbacks nested within each other, hopping from era to era with little fanfare. This is not, I think, meant to confuse us (sleight-of-hand), but simply to mimic the confusion and fragmentation that the revenge-addled protagonists suffer from throughout the proceedings. Moreover, given that the primary conflict is driven by an event in the long-distant past, it makes sense that the past would keep insisting on poking its way into the constantly-shifting present. Unlike most mindfuck films, where twistiness is its own justification, this brilliantly-structured story earns every flashback.

Which is not to say it lives and dies by its script; Christopher Nolan is a brilliant director of images, and his work with longtime collaborator Wally Pfister is possibly their best yet. I adored the nihilistic blacks of Batman Begins, but even I have to admit that everything about The Prestige looks better. It's a world on the cusp of indoor electrical lights, and the camera lovingly captures every detail of the dusky light that entails. I can't in good faith call any of it very imaginative, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been done well. It's by turns gloomy, mysterious and occasionally cheerful, and that sort of tonal shifting must be saluted.

The cast is uniformly fine, although Johansson doesn't get much to do; the absolute standout, however, is David Bowie in an extended cameo as Nikola Tesla. The role doesn't make sense, but it's flashy and impossible to resist, and in this way it is a perfect match for the former Ziggy Stardust. And for the film as a whole: gorgeous, unsubtle, and extraordinarily talented.