FILMMAKERS Chris and Jonah Nolan appear to be brothers in name only.
Chris has the scruffy pallor of a sleep-deprived father (the 36-year-old has three young children), while Jonah, 30, shows the robust physique of a gym rat. Chris favors suits and dress shirts, Jonah jeans and T-shirts. Chris speaks with an English accent, while Jonah's is Chicago American. Chris doesn't even use e-mail, but Jonah lives by the Internet.
People who meet them "think they are putting them on when they say they are brothers," says David Goyer, who wrote the story and shared screenplay credit on Chris Nolan's "Batman Begins" and wrote the story for Chris and Jonah's screenplay for the sequel, "The Dark Knight." "You don't think of brothers having totally different accents and mannerisms."
Despite all their obvious differences, though, the Nolan brothers speak with a distinct and unified screenwriting voice. Their collaborations — "Memento," "Batman Begins" and its upcoming sequel, and Friday's "The Prestige" — have accomplished what few screenwriters and directors manage: They wowed moviegoers and critics simultaneously.
"The Prestige" likely represents their greatest challenge yet. While "Memento," which Chris adapted from Jonah's short story "Memento Mori," was told in reverse chronological order, it didn't carry an exorbitant pricetag, budgeted at $5 million. "Batman Begins," on which Jonah served as a creative consultant but had no screenplay credit, cost a fortune at $150 million, but it benefited from pervasive brand-name awareness. "The Prestige," for its part, occupies Hollywood's most dangerous middle ground: It's a medium-priced (more than $40-million) adult drama based on a complicated novel unknown to most ticket buyers.
Written by English science fiction author Christopher Priest, "The Prestige" is an account of a duel between two magicians in turn-of-the-century London. Alfred Borden (played by Christian Bale) and Rupert Angier (whose first name is changed to Robert in the film and who's played by Hugh Jackman) are each obsessed with the other's tricks, especially iterations of a deception in which the rival magician appears to be transported across the stage — or even across the theater — in the blink of an eye.
The film as well as the 1996 book are anchored by the competition between the illusionists, which grows increasingly personal and cold-blooded. The book's largely diaristic narrative also strays in several directions, with elements of a ghost story and a detour into anti-spiritualism and the birth of electricity — all framed by a modern-day storytelling device. But the very literary ambitions that made "The Prestige" a memorable novel (it won the World Fantasy Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) turned it into a nearly unsolvable cinematic riddle, one that would take the Nolan brothers seven years to crack.
"It's a really tough adaptation," says Chris. "It's just sprawling. It's got all this different crazy stuff in it. But you know there's a great movie in there." Adds Jonah: "It's just a grind figuring it out."
The resulting movie — like so much of the Nolans' earlier work — revolves around identity, the distinct differences of personality even within the same person. (Chris' first feature film, 1998's "Following," a movie about a mysterious voyeur made without his brother, as well as "Memento" and "Batman Begins" all dwell on various explorations of the self, the struggle between what a person assumes he is or wants to be and what he truly is destined to be.)
Those themes play a prominent role in "The Prestige," but there's not much more that can be said about the movie without giving away its plot twists. Let it be said that magic is only part of the deceit.