Stealing beauty

Two UK directors turn away from epic storytelling, with mixed results

<strong>Breaking and Enterin

Two British writer-directors embraced by Hollywood return this week with films that swap the epic for the intimate. In Breaking and Entering, Anthony Minghella eschews the period trappings of his recent work in favour of the clutter of modern-day London. And in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan, who brought brains to the blockbuster in last year's Batman Begins, unravels a creepy fantasy about rival magicians. These are films to gorge on, stuffed so full with incident, detail and symbolism that you need to loosen your belt once they're over - not generally the best thing to be caught doing in a darkened cinema.

Breaking and Entering is a slice of multicultural London life, a Dirty Pretty Things that's pretty rather than dirty. A spate of burglaries takes place at a landscape architecture firm run by Will (Jude Law) and Sandy (Martin Freeman). The CID officer Bruno (Ray Winstone) isn't surprised: what else can you expect in King's Cross, he wonders, where yuppies co-exist with crack dealers? Frustrated at the burglars' persistence, Will stakes out the office one night and witnesses 15-year-old Miro (Rafi Gavron) scaling an outside wall.

He tracks Miro to the flat he shares with his mother, Amira (Juliette Binoche), and engineers a friendship with this shy Bosnian widow. Will's feelings for Amira soon dwarf the initial reason for his sleuthing, and provide him with a reprieve from the fraught domestic life he shares with his partner Liv (Robin Wright Penn). But when Amira uncovers Miro's link to Will, she has to choose between son and lover.

Benoît Delhomme's cinematography presents King's Cross as a shimmering mess of cranes and scaffolding, in which the characters resemble the tiny plastic figures that populate Will's architectural models.

Minghella keeps the tone gently absurd. Visit King's Cross tonight and you won't see many prostitutes like Oana (Vera Farmiga), who dispenses lattes and worldly wisdom. Commit a crime and you'll be lucky to be quizzed by someone like Bruno, who takes a suspect for an afternoon out at Alexandra Palace. In this film, the long arm of the law is there to give you a cuddle.

Such fanciful touches complement the clinical dissection of Will and Liv's failing relationship. In the finest scene, Will remembers fondly the time Liv bit him in an outburst of passion. And when you look at Wright Penn, you can see she would eat him for breakfast. The optimism of Minghella's film finds its clearest embodiment in this elegant woman not averse to kicking, screaming and, yes, biting, to hang on to what she wants.

The preview audience for The Prestige was asked not to disclose the plot's twists. As if! But even after consulting geeky websites, where fans trade theories about its ending, I'm still not sure I could explain it. What I can say is that Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) are conjurers in Victorian London. Their rivalry peaks after an onstage accident where . . . well, best not divulge anything about that. Let's focus instead on Robert's annoyance when Alfred perfects a trick called The Transported Man, in which he exits a door on one side of the stage and appears on the other a split-second later.

Robert is determined to discover the secret of the trick, but his quest leads him into macabre territory when he is introduced to . . . no, I should leave you in the dark there. There is lots to admire beyond the clever-clever script, from Nathan Crowley's seedy production design to a cast - including Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine and a very touching David Bowie - that keeps the blood pumping through what could have been a mechanical exercise in cinematic sleight-of-hand. Unlike Nolan's earlier Memento (2000), I suspect the film is no more than the sum of its tricks - once the rabbits have vacated this particular top hat, there'll be nothing left to marvel at. Still, you have to concede it's a hell of a hat.

Pick of the week

Red Road (18)
dir: Andrea Arnold
Gruelling but rewarding thriller about a woman's quest for revenge.

Borat (15)
dir: Larry Charles
Sacha Baron Cohen takes on America in this hilarious and unexpectedly pointed comedy.

Starter for Ten (12A)
dir: Tom VaughanUniversity Challenge beckons for mid-1980s working-class student James McAvoy.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Rumbled!