Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Dark Knight

18. The Dark Knight (2008)
Dir: Christopher Nolan

For years, Tim Burton had been known as the director who made the dark Batman films, as opposed to the campier 60s series or Joel Schumacher's roundly-panned attmepts. Then, in 2005, Christopher Nolan released the first of his new take on the Batman story, 'Batman Begins' (2005), and suddenly Burton's films seemed more aligned with the camp of the other versions than they were with this ferocious new vision.

I should state before I get any further into this review that I may be in over my head here. I'm not overly fond of the action genre or superhero movies, save for the odd exception here and there. I have little knowledge of comic books, which means I can't offer any notes on the authenticity of the material in comparison with its source. Some might say that I'd be better off just leaving it to someone more versed in the art of the action genre and superhero phenomenon. However, I absolutely loved 'The Dark Knight' and I'd like to share that and encourage those who have misgivings to put them aside and give it a try.

There will be spoilers ahead:

Although it's not strictly necessary, those wanting to give 'The Dark Knight' a try would be well advised to start by watching 'Batman Begins'. I actually saw 'The Dark Knight' first, then went back to watch 'Batman Begins', after which I rewatched 'The Dark Knight' and enjoyed it a lot more. 'Batman Begins' is a good film, particularly its second half, but it unfortunately has to spend a lot of time on set-up. Loads of characters have to be introduced and Christian Bale, in the lead role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, doesn't don his superhero suit for about an hour. During this hour, we see the crucial murder of the young Bruce's parents and then have to endure a load of dull sequences in which the adult Bruce learns the ways of the criminal underworld from a group called the League of Shadows, who train him in their methods by way of spouting a load of convoluted guff which sounds profound but ultimately means very little if you concentrate on it. These are the sort of desperate-to-be-cool, pseudo-intellectual scenes that we've seen a million times before and it's a real bore. So much time is wasted with this that Wayne's creation of Batman as his alter-ego feels a bit rushed when it finally arrives as we quickly see him get all his accesories in just a few bunched up scenes.

Once he's in the suit and on the streets of Gotham, however, 'Batman Begins' picks up significantly with thrilling action sequences and good plot development. By the end I was thoroughly entertained. But it's not only the limp first half of 'Batman Begins' that I had problems with. While Nolan's film looks fantastic and has plenty of great scenes, the casting of this first film is often questionable. The main sticking point for me is the utterly wooden, unappealing Christian Bale. His Bruce Wayne never seems human at all, failing to pull off any emotion other than brooding, while his Batman is rendered ludicrous by his famously ridiculous growly voice, a distractingly stupid decision which even fans of the film generally despised. Katie Holmes is bland in what is, to be fair, not an especially interesting role, assistant D.A. and Bruce's childhood friend Rachel Dawes. Michael Caine as Alfred sounds like a decent idea on paper but Caine never escapes his well-worn cockney persona and, indeed, Nolan's script often plays up to this with some ludicrously misplaced pieces of gentle comedy. Only Gary Oldman as the honourable Sgt. Gordan and Morgan Freeman as Wayne Enterprises employee Lucius Fox, fare at all well in the acting stakes.

Given the amount of problems I had with 'Batman Begins', you might think I wouldn't have enjoyed 'The Dark Knight' but Nolan's second part of what will ultimately become his Batman trilogy is a MASSIVE improvement. A major plus is that he doesn't have to spend much time at all on set-up. A small moment at the end of 'Batman Begins' clued audiences in to the fact that this second part would feature the Joker as its main villain, allowing Nolan to open immediately with a great bank robbery scene featuring the Joker and his accomplices. When we first see Bale he is already in the Batman suit and we're straight into the main story. Bale seems a little more comfortable in his role this time round, though he's by no means great. Maggie Gyllenhaal seamlessly replaces Katie Holmes in the Rachel Dawes role and is a little better and Caine, while still distracting, has significantly less to do in this more tightly packed sequel. Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman also reappear in their roles and continue to be good.

But its the new additions to the cast that really impress. Aaron Eckhart is great as new D.A. Harvey Dent who makes the transformation from golden boy and Gotham's great white hope to the disfigured, murderous villain Two-Face. Eckhart is convincing in both these roles and the disfiguring effects are absolutely superb. But few would dispute that 'The Dark Knight' really belongs to Heath Ledger in a stunning performance as the Joker. Ledger, who died soon after filming, inhabits the Joker completely. With gaping scars (the origin of which differs depending on who he's talking to) giving him a permanent smile, the Joker is a creepy character indeed. He is very funny but you always feel too on edge to laugh, so psychotic and unsettling is this creation. He sets about an unmotivated campaign of chaos, giving birth to a shocking moment of destruction for every one-liner he spouts. Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan must be given significant credit here, their excellent screenplay giving the Joker some great speeches that make up for the League of Shadows' blathering bollocks! Ledger's performance, however, lends this dialogue even more weight and impact. Ledger takes simple lines and turns them into highlights. His mock-sympathetic "Hi" to the hospitalised Harvey Dent is my favourite line of the film and the small moment where he has remote-control trouble with his explosives mixes the darkest black comedy and a dramtic gut-punch to absolute perfection. With his slurping tongue and simple but eeriely effective make-up, Ledger's Joker is an iconic film character already and he more than deserved his posthumous Oscar win.

The plot of 'The Dark Knight' is a very strong one. The Nolan brothers are not afraid of layering on the plot threads and they tie them up extraordinarily neatly in the final moments, which leave audiences begging for them to hurry up with the final installment. They find important roles for all their many characters (with the possible exception of Alfred, but that's no great loss in this case) and manage to make two and a half hours fly by. Though there is plenty of action, there's also lots of good dialogue and character development, the like of which are all too often missing from low-grade action movies that ask us to care about the thinnest of cardboard stereotypes. These many elements are expertly orchestrated into one of the finest films of the '00s.

I've always been more drawn to Batman than to any other superhero franchise. There's something about that dark, film noirish atmosphere and the heightened focus on fascinating characters over empty theatrics that really appeals to me. In 'The Dark Knight', Christopher Nolan has made the best realisation of these attractive elements I could have hoped for, improving significantly on his flawed but exciting and enjoyable 'Batman Begins'. If he can keep up the quality of 'The Dark Knight' for the third installment, Nolan's Batman will become one of cinema's great trilogies.

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