The Prestige

The Contenders

Release: Oct. 20

Distributor: Disney

Oscar Alums: Michael Caine (supporting actor, “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “The Cider House Rules”), Richard King (sound editing: “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”)

A year after revitalizing a moribund comicbook franchise with “Batman Begins,” indie darling-turned-A-list helmer Christopher Nolan returned to the multiplexes in 2006 with his passion project about a vicious rivalry between two magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) in 19th-century England.

Amid generally positive critical support, film took top spot following its opening weekend. With the picture race filling up quickly (plus competish from the other period magic movie, “The Illusionist”), Nolan’s pic probably won’t seriously contend for the Acad’s top prize. But that doesn’t mean “The Prestige” will do a complete disappearing act when nominations are announced Jan. 13.

Adapted from the novel by Christopher Priest, the script reunites Nolan with his brother Jonathan, with whom he shared a screenplay nod for “Memento” in 2000. And while “The Prestige” isn’t as formally innovative as that earlier effort, the Nolans aren’t afraid of making bold choices, eschewing a traditional three-act structure in favor of a twist-laden nonlinear narrative that constantly jumps backward and forward in time without ever losing narrative or emotional clarity.

If “Batman Begins” proved that the 36-year-old Brit had the helming chops to take on a big-budget actioner, “The Prestige” bears the mark of a director in full command of his craft. Reuniting with ace d.p. Wally Pfister and much of the tech crew from “Batman,” Nolan confidently pulls off his share of bravura visual moments but never lets flashy camerawork interfere with the performance of his cast.

Warners, which gave the helmer the keys to the castle with its tentpole franchise (the “Batman” sequel is in pre-production), will justifiably push for a best director nod.

Among the solid cast, Bale’s turn as the cockney magic prodigy Alfred Borden represents another nuanced performance for the chameleonlike thesp. And Jackman is perfectly cast as Borden’s insecure aristocratic showman nemesis Robert Angier.

Oscar darling Michael Caine, who plays Angier’s behind-the-scenes maestro, Cutter, delivers his usual scene-stealing stuff. Female roles, while adeptly play by Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall and Piper Perabo, may not be meaty enough to warrant serious consideration. Same goes for the captivating but all-too-brief perfs by rocker David Bowie and Andy “Gollum” Serkis.

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