The Prestige (12A)<br/> Breaking and Entering (15)

Where's the magic?
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The Independent Culture

Can something be ingenious and dull at the same time? In the case of cinema I'm afraid the answer is: all too often. If film-making is a series of tricks and illusions, then we would have to consider Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock as two master practitioners. Welles was actually a dab hand at magic, and his ultimate trick was to have made his career disappear. But it's a very rare film-as-puzzle that turns out to be a Citizen Kane or a Vertigo. We can all think of films that successfully bamboozle us yet absolutely fail to involve or absorb. Top of my list here would be the Nicolas Roeg-Donald Cammell 1970 cult trip Performance, a film I've often enjoyed talking about, have indeed read an excellent book about, but have always found watching the damn thing an unconscionable bore. Clever things, and clever people, sometimes are.

Which brings us to Christopher Nolan's latest, The Prestige, a film that promises such complexity and invention you can hardly imagine an audience outside of Stephen Hawking worthy of deciphering it. Adapted from Christopher Priest's superb 1995 novel, it concerns a rivalry between two celebrated Victorian stage magicians that spirals madly out of hand.

Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) start out as friends and co-illusionists on London's theatrical circuit until one of their signature tricks ends in a fatal accident. The two men fall out so bitterly over it that they take to sabotaging each other's acts, a hateful one-upmanship that gradually congeals into a murderous obsession.

Nolan is working from a script he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, the same team who conjured two genuine oddities in their black-and-white debut Following and then the backward-tracking thriller Memento. The Prestige shares the fractured timeline and fancy editing of the latter but is scaled around a three-act structure that apparently reflects the three parts of a magic trick: The Pledge (the set-up), The Turn (the showpiece), and The Prestige, which is the pay-off. As the Nolan brothers have it, their film adapts the same techniques of misdirection to bewitch and bewilder us just as the magicians would their audience.

Well, that's the theory. In practice, it fails on the simple level of drama. Nolan may have done a bang-up job in finessing the three-act trick, but what emerges on screen has all the vitality of a suet pudding; it's complicated, all right, but inert; it's theatrical, but dead. Actors are illusionists as much as directors, perhaps more so, and the cast gathered here just isn't up to snuff. Bale is the brooder to Jackman's dandy, and while they both cut a dash there's not much psychological intrigue to keep us hooked.

Michael Caine as a behind-the-scenes eminence looks at ease - does he ever look anything else nowadays? - but David Bowie as the electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla and Scarlett Johansson as an unreliable stage assistant don't seem to have had any direction at all. The Prestige, with its secrets and reveals, its impostures and doublings, conveys all the appearance of ingenuity, but it lacks that element it most conspicuously strives for: magic.

Anthony Minghella is, like Christopher Nolan, a talented British director who talks a good movie. His latest, Breaking and Entering, marks a break from his previous international outings (The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley, Cold Mountain) to focus upon the changing complexion of that run-down refuge of the druggy and insane, King's Cross.

As photographed by Benoit Delhomme, the area looks menacing yet luminous, a place of opportunities both to the thrusting new architects and planners whose cranes peer interestedly across the horizon, and to the criminal classes eager to exploit the new influx of wealth.

The architect is played by Jude Law, troubled at home by a faltering relationship (with Robin Wright Penn) and her worryingly hyperactive 13-year-old daughter, distracted at work by a series of break-ins. With his radar for the vulnerable he then falls for a Bosnian refugee (Juliette Binoche) whose teenage son he happened to track from another burglary at his office.

The web of motivation and counter-motivation becomes entangled with Minghella's own concerns about our attitudes to immigrants; the idea that London relies on an invisible army of foreign workers doing the jobs we don't want to do precisely echoes Stephen Frears' film Dirty Pretty Things (2002).

The difference here is the liberal impulse to assuage guilt with good deeds, an escape valve that unfor- tunately releases whatever dramatic pressure the film has been storing. Minghella sets up a series of moral dilemmas and instead of examining the consequences he simply backs off.

As with all of his films, Breaking and Entering is extremely well-made and attentive to detail. Visual and aural rhymes abound, such as the acrobatic talents of the gymnast daughter and the burglar son, while the shrieks of foxes prowling the gardens of Primrose Hill contrast with the silent piano keyboard on which Binoche practises - a rather too poignant image of the voiceless wanderer.

Law, working on his third picture with Minghella, gives a quite convincing account of a stressed-out professional, though when that stress mostly entails having to choose between Wright Penn and Binoche one's gut response might be: let me have your problems. But that's not why the film loses its grip. Minghella's desire to make a realistic picture about the abrasive textures and conflicts of modern London keeps breaking step with his nice-guy instincts for reconciliation and forgiveness. This isn't just a question of wanting a happy ending; it's fundamentally a problem with his conception of how people really behave. I can't think of another film this year that has begun so promisingly and ended so poorly.