Electricity & Lust

Review: The Dark Knight

Posted in film by Sam Unsted on July 25, 2008

(Picture from here)

The Dark Knight – *****

Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan and David Goyer.

So the hype train rolls into town, replete with enormous expectation and a final central performance from a young actor lost in his prime. It comes with the hopes of millions of Batman comic fans and those who have longed hoped to see the full vision of those graphic novels brought to full fruition. It comes with the broken dreams of some who were disappointed by Batman Begins and felt cheated that Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller never saw their work reach the screen. It comes to these shores with a bandwagon of supporters from across the pond. It comes with ringing endorsements from fans of and haters of the first Nolan instalment and even comes with the true test of quality filmmaking, a negative review from The Daily Mail’s Christopher Tookey. So after all is said and done, does Nolan’s Dark Knight and Ledger’s Joker deliver the goods? In short, damn straight.

I won’t spend much time on the plot but essentially you have Batman being joined in his fight against crime by new DA Harvey Dent. The two then take on the crime families of Gotham but fail to realise the threat of a new criminal, The Joker. Meanwhile, Dent is dating and proposing to Rachel Dawes, the love of Batman/Bruce Wayne’s life, creating a love triangle to parallel the wider crime story.

That is about as perfunctory a plot summary as I could give you but its important to go into this film not knowing much about what happens. If you alien or at least unfamiliar with the comics, you need to see this without reading much about the film, going along for the ride and being swept up in the epic saga it weaves. If you are a comic reader, the essence of those characters is very satisfyingly captured without being slaveringly holy about the source material. They seem to have struck balances between it being a film to please comic book kids and film fans alike.

Balances is a key element of Nolan’s storytelling here. Much of the criticism of the movie, of which there has been reassuringly little, centres on its length. At 152 minutes, its certainly a chunky proposition for the average movie fan but while I would argue that it is slightly overlong, the length serves a specific purpose that makes it hard to criticise. Nolan seems intent to make sure that no character gets short shrift, giving great moments to all the key and peripheral characters in the story, including a couple of touching scenes with Michael Caine’s Alfred which finally give his character the hardened yet soft depth we needed. Nolan makes sure that all the character are fully fleshed out and given their time to expand. If that makes the story overlong, its not a problem because he’s simply trying to make sure no-one gets left on the sidelines, a problem with so many superhero and comic books movies that become overoccupied with exploring the central hero.

It helps Nolan in achieving a balance between characters that his cast are impeccable. Christian Bale almost ends up playing second fiddle for much of the movie to Ledger’s Joker, Aaron Eckhart’s Dent and Gary Oldman’s Gordon. It becomes an ensemble superhero movie and buys its right to do this by making sure that everyone is as interesting, if not more so, than Batman.

Heath Ledger is taking up much of the acting praise for the film and his work here is pretty spectacular. He twitches and snarls and is plays the Joker much more physically than Jack Nicholson ever attempted. He makes the Joker into a tangible threat on his own, rather than simply a Kingpin of crime syndicate. There are moments where his psychotic nature just pours off the screen and his villainy is never overdone. His plans and schemes all make sense and his coldness towards humanity is portrayed through his brutal treatment of human life. He’s a beautifully realised acting creation from Ledger.

Much of the reality that comes from his schemes is facilitated by Nolan and the script from Nolan’s brother Jonathan and the story from David Goyer. The script takes its time to make the audience understand that many people, either within the DA or the Gotham police force, are on the payroll of criminals and therefore that plans which require a certain amount of cooperation to be pulled off by the Joker are easily doable. The script is pretty wonderful in itself. The Nolans and Goyers have created a whole new Gotham world, surely party based on the New York of the 1970s, and shoot the city in an entirely different way which recalls most pertinently Michael Mann’s Heat. The latter was Los Angeles but its sweeping shots of imposing chrome and glass buildings are strongly recalled by the cinematography here (shooting Chicago incidentally) from long-time Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister. The script makes time for us to understand the system of Gotham, for us to be brought into this real world, a distance from the gothic wonderland of Burton and the cyberpunk crapness of Schumacher. It also deliberately provides an ending which is both bleak and hopeful, a fitting way to close out a Batman film in which the hero is never the clear cut good guy in the way Superman is. Batman, as is said in the film, makes the choices others will not and sometimes this involves him becoming outcast from society in ways he may not deserve but that he accepts as needed for the greater good. Ledger’s Oscar nod is almost assured but a script nomination should also follow.

The film is even thematically quite different from Batman Begins in placing Batman within a real context but never losing sight that this is a comic-book movie. This is the other key balance the movie gets so right. Although a crime saga of epic proportions, the film doesn’t forget to deliver fantastic action sequences and beautifully- judged moments of humour. For while this delivers a great crime story, it still has a legacy of character and films to live up to or to at least nod to. Of all the previous incarnations, the film most closely resembles the brilliant Animated Series from the early 1990s, most particularly through creating the emotional backdrop of the story and through Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker, specifically the maniacal and chilling laugh the young man perfected.

Although Ledger deserves all the praise he’s getting for his Joker, the rest of the cast is absolutely great. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman bring both the requisite air of gravitas and grounding as well as little touches of knowing humour, making their characters far less one-note than many were for me in Batman Begins. Gary Oldman is wonderful in this one, moving on from the horrible Keystone cop idiocy of the aforementioned first and becoming the Gordon that’s needed in the story – heroic and noble but unable to quite fulfil all the requirements of a hero, therefore needing Batman only to facilitate the final parts of his crimefighting. The best we get though are Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart as Rachel and Harvey Dent respectively. Comic fans will know the partial denouement of Dent and for them I will say that the transformation is incredible, gory and brutal, completely eviscerating anything Tommy Lee Jones achieved. Eckhart plays Dent perfectly, a mixture of explosive anger and heroism, willing to do anything he can to make his city a better place, even placing himself in direct danger a number of times to try and achieve his goal. He also avoids any kind of mugging and the script avoids any horrible overdone references to who he will become in the future. He plays those moments with great subtlety and puts in a superlative performance which should push him further into the A-list. Gyllenhaal gets maybe even more praise for solving a key problem with Batman Begins, Katie Holmes. Holmes never had any kind of presence or playfulness that suggested Bruce Wayne could have any interest in her. Gyllenhaal provides a beautifully realised character portrait of a young woman helping to fight the corrupted system of Gotham while remaining sparky, attractive and human. Her acting alongside Bale and Dent shows why the choice between the two is so difficult avoiding painting the love story as any kind of easy choice for her or the audience. All the depth of the choices she has to make come through in her performance.

The other problem with Batman Begins was the action sequences. To put is bluntly, they simply weren’t exciting enough. Problem solved. Not only are the action scenes in this film exciting, they are visually incredible. Through sticking with doing mostly live stunts and only using CGI to facilitate certain moments, the action scenes take on a certain authenticity and manage to make sure you don’t lose what’s going on as so many terrible CGI-action sequences (Transformers, Hancock) do. The moment hyped in the trailers, the lorry flipping, is far more exciting than you would imagine it would be having already seen it and there is so much more beyond that. Even the quick moments of smaller violence are done with panache and again, that sense of reality, which make them so much more effective than previous Batman incarnations.

Before all this praise becomes too much, there are minor issues to be found here. Eric Roberts as Morrone is woefully miscast. Although the lack of threat he provides works in further pushing the Joker’s danger level, his accent is a little wobbly and he just provides too little interest. It’s hard to see the largest crime family in Gotham handing the reins to him.

That’s about it. There really aren’t any problems that could even vaguely spoil your enjoyment of his film unless you have a prejudice against long movies or are a die-hard Schumacher fan. Finally we have a comic book film to stand alongside Superman as not just a great actioner, not just a great comic adaptation, but as a genuinely great film. My faith is restored. Long live the Bat.

P.S Minor note but for fans of The Tick, tell me you got a kick out of the Mayor being played by Batmanuel.


2 Responses

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  1. Adam said, on July 30, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    Well-written review. I’m not sure I’d give it a full 5 stars, but it’s pretty close — I did think the beginning Batman scenes (parking garage, hong kong) were uneven and there were minor problems (the “twist” witht he latina cop…SO obvious), but overall definitely the best comic-book movie I’ve ever seen.

  2. movie buff said, on August 28, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    i still wish Katie Holmes had stayed on board as Rachel Dawes for the Dark Knight; it was like the time spent getting familiar with her character in Batman Begins was wasted…

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