Back in 1944, Universal Pictures decided that the best way to advertise its monster mash House of Frankenstein was by simply trumpeting the picture’s all-star lineup on the poster: “Frankenstein’s Monster! Wolf Man! Dracula! Hunchback! Mad Doctor!” Given the pop culture icons represented by the performers cast in The Prestige, Buena Vista Pictures enjoys the option of doing likewise: “Batman! Wolverine! Gollum! Ziggy Stardust!” Not that the studio has any need or desire to take such a sensationalistic approach. The Prestige, co-written and directed by the immensely talented Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Memento), is the third of this year’s releases centering around magicians (following Woody Allen’s Scoop and the Edward Norton sleeper hit The Illusionist), and it’s far and away the best. Teaming with his brother Jonathan to adapt Christopher Priest’s novel, Chris Nolan has crafted a dense and multilayered drama that explores his usual recurrent themes while simultaneously serving up a cracking good mystery yarn. Set in turn-of-the-century London, The Prestige casts Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier and Christian Bale as Alfred Borden, two aspiring magicians working under the tutelage of master showman Cutter (Michael Caine). Almost right from the start, it’s established that Angier is the more charismatic of the pair: gentle, romantic and extroverted enough to know how to grab an audience’s attention. The brooding Borden, by comparison, is more inwardly directed, and his devotion to his craft suggests that he’s willing to get his hands dirty and sacrifice anything to realize his dream of becoming a master magician. A tragedy that occurs during one of Cutter’s stage shows closes down the operation and sends both men off in their own directions, with each one harboring nothing but contempt for the other. Cutter, who chooses to remain with Angier, correctly notes that while Borden is the more accomplished artist, he lacks Angier’s pizzazz and aptitude for stage spectacle, an angle that’s further accentuated once Angier hires a beauty named Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to serve as his eye-candy assistant. The movie isn’t simplistic enough to pit a “good” magician (Angier) against an “evil” one (Borden); instead, it recognizes the duality of each man’s nature, a theme that eventually expands to a startling degree. It can be argued that the story becomes too fantastical for its own good -- it’s more compelling when it’s rooted in reality rather than when it enters the realm of science fiction -- but except for a nagging final shot, the filmmakers at least take care to cover all their narrative bases with acceptable explanations and believable character arcs.