Dir: Christopher Nolan. US. 2006. 128mins.

Sometime superheroes Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play obsessively feudingVictorian magicians in The Prestige,a classy thriller, with a Gothic sci-fi twist, from writer-director ChristopherNolan. Coming off last year's comic book blockbuster Batman Begins, Nolan this time turns intricate literary materialinto an atmospheric and intriguing - if not entirely successful - periodmystery that has more in common with his 2000 breakthrough Memento. The NewmarketFilms production (with a reported $40m budget) has the potential to reach adecent-sized up-market crossover audience, but its theme may not make it achallenging sell for distributors Buena Vistaand Warner.

After itsworld premiere at this week's new Rome Film Fest, The Prestige opens wide in North America (with a PG-13 rating) thisweekend. Competition will come from other, arguably more marketable upscaleautumn releases, though the presence of Jackman (fromthe X-Men movies),Bale (star of Batman Begins) andco-stars Michael Caine and ScarlettJohansson should help draw opening weekend cinemagoers.

Anotherchallenge for domestic distributor Buena Vistawill be to differentiate the film from TheIllusionist, the late summer lower-budgeted magician-themed period piecethat successfully built word-of-mouth and at time of writing is still in theNorth American top 10. The similarities between the two films may besuperficial, but they may still confuse prospective ticket buyers.

Warner BrosInternational may be able to avoid confusing clashes in other territories as itrolls out The Prestige betweenNovember and January. The star names will again be an asset internationally andWarner should also get some mileage out of the film's strong supporting castand literary pedigree.

AuthorChristopher Priest's award-winning 1995 novel provided the basis for the scriptby Nolan and his brother Jonathan (writer of the story on which Memento wasbased). Jackman's Robert Angier and Bale's AlfredBorden start out as young employees of magician's ingeneur(illusion designer) Cutter (Caine). But when Bordenis involved in a trick that goes fatally wrong for Angier's wife, the two menbecome enemies and start a rivalry that persists through their increasinglysuccessful stage careers.

The rivalryescalates over a particular illusion, an illusion that causes one man to lead alife of deceit and the other to explore the then new and dangerous phenomenonof electricity.

The Nolans make some major changes to Priest's sometimeswandering story, streamlining the narrative, expanding some roles and inventinga couple of key plot points of their own. They introduce a revenge thrilleraspect that was largely absent from the book and put more emphasis on aromantic angle involving magician's assistant Olivia (Johansson). Teasing cluesare scattered throughout the story and the whole film is structured like amagic trick, in this case one with a double surprise ending that thedistributors are asking reviewers not to reveal.

The resultis a film that's cleverly constructed and often intriguing but never quitefully absorbing. Nolan chooses to play down the sci-fi aspects that might haveproduced some impressive effects and his use of a fractured time line andcomplex structure could test the patience of mainstream moviegoers. The film isalso hurt by a few overly theatrical moments and performances.

Bale givesBorden, the more intense of the two magicians, a satisfying edge, though hesometimes overdoes the Cockney accent. Jackman issmooth to a fault as the more entertainment-minded (and, in the film, American)Angier. Caine (who played butler Alfred to Bale'sCaped Crusader in Batman Begins)strolls amiably through his role as Angier's mentor.

David Bowiehas a small role as real-life electricity pioneer NikolaTesla. Equipped with a moustache and a vaguely European accent, the rock legendadopts a minimalist acting style but it's still hard not to be pulled out ofthe story by his appearance.

Though mostlyset in London, the film successfully recreatesthe capital of Victorian Britain on stages and locations - including someimpressive vintage theatres - in Los Angeles. Two of Nolan's regular collaborators helpgive the production a rich period feel: director of photography Wally Pfister does appealing, and mostly handheld camera work,and Nathan Crowley contributes nicely textured production design.


US distribution
Buena Vista Pictures

Warner Bros International

Charles J D Schlissel
Chris Ball
William Tyrer
Valerie Dean

Emma Thomas
Aaron Ryder
Christopher Nolan

Jonathan Nolan
Christopher Nolan
Based on the novel by Christopher Priest

Wally Pfister

Nathan Crowley

Lee Smith

David Julyan

Main cast
Hugh Jackman
Christian Bale
Michael Caine
Piper Perabo
Rebecca Hall
Scarlett Johansson
David Bowie