Christopher Nolan's already impressive CV (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins) gets even better with the release of The Prestige (12A), a fascinating tale of rival magicians battling to out-do one another in 19th-century London. Friends to begin with, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) become bitter enemies when Angier blames Borden for the death of his wife during a stage performance. The intensity of their hatred means that the dispute soon becomes murderous – but equally intense is their mutual passion to move the time-honoured craft of illusion into the realms of magic itself.
Adapted by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan from Christopher Priest's novel, The Prestige is a beautifully crafted film. It boasts a fine cast (Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis, Rebecca Hall and David Bowie populate the minor roles), complex characters, superb attention to period detail and two excellent performances from its warring protagonists, with Bale in particular embellishing his recent run of good work with another riveting characterisation. But it's the script, and Nolan's direction, that stand out here.
Nolan has always been an economical director and, even though The Prestige clocks in at over two hours, there's barely a scrap of fat on its lean structure. The narrative too is immensely satisfying, a convoluted enigma wrapped in a puzzle at the heart of a labyrinth. Even more than that, it's a meditation on the nature of both storytelling and magical illusions, and the fact that both endeavours are branches of the same science. And what's most galling is the realisation that the writer-director's last twist, the magicians' final flourish, has been hiding in plain sight throughout. Scintillating stuff.
John Boorman's latest film, The Tiger's Tail (15A), could have done with a sprinkle of The Prestige's pixie-dust. The set-up is intriguing: wealthy but stressed businessman Liam O'Leary (Brendan Gleeson) starts to see his doppelganger on the streets of Dublin and worries that he's losing his mind, only for his paranoia to be justified when the doppelganger assumes his identity and takes over his life.
We're in Kafka territory here, but the narrative tone is never established strongly enough to grip the imagination. There are far too many plot-holes, most of which relate to how easy it would be for the exiled O'Leary to prove his real identity. The temptation is to believe that Boorman is attempting to maximise the exaggerations in order to create a fairytale parable about the excesses of the Celtic Tiger, as personified by O'Leary – but even fairytales need a cohesive structure.
Gleeson is as watchable as ever and the film offers a hard-nosed perspective on modern Dublin rarely seen on celluloid – the fact that O'Leary's world is a brittle bubble buoyed up by credit, and as such easily punctured, is a sobering one. But while Boorman's script raises interesting questions about the essence of our personalities, the second half of the film becomes an embarrassingly desperate attempt to rein in this particular tiger by tugging on its tail. No surprise, then, that it fails miserably.
The Prestige *****
The Tiger's Tail **