Sunday, 22 July 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises

The plot thickens in the compelling, absorbing conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus

If ever there was a fictional character made for the angsty, grim and Hitchcockian sensibilities of Christopher Nolan, it's the Batman. To date, Nolan has prided himself on telling suspenseful stories about misunderstood, disillusioned outcasts who are given a shot at redemption through circumstance, their own ingenuity, or both. A little like Steven Spielberg and the James Bond series (unsurprisingly, Nolan is a huge Bond fan), but here, there is a stronger, not to mention vital, emphasis on consequences. We live in a world where society seems more subject to "agents of chaos" than ever before, and both the Bond films from Casino Royale '06 onwards and Nolan have grasped this. All three of Nolan's Batman films, especially The Dark Knight Rises, have engulfed the "boy who learns to be a man" story arc in the realities of our times, transforming it into a compelling and resonant saga. Both for our time, and for the ages.

"In spite of everything you’ve done for them, eventually they will hate you." Thus spoke the Green Goblin, as played by Willem Dafoe, in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film. And those words couldn't be more applicable to Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne/Batman by the opening scenes of The Dark Knight Rises. Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, when he took the fall for the quite literally two-faced Harvey Dent’s crimes, Bruce is a sorry, haggard, limping figure, hidden away from society. His ally, Commissioner Jim Gordon (a never better Gary Oldman), cannot bring himself to reveal the truth about Dent in front of Gotham's citizens. Such are the consequences of a lie, even a noble one, and before long, Nolan and editor Lee Smith apply very sudden cuts to underline the contrast between the apathetic (the citizens), the reclusive (Bruce) and especially the curious, notably Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s earnest cop, John Blake, and Anne Hathaway’s slinky, mischievous cat burglar*, Selina Kyle, at that moment in time. As Selina says, there is indeed a storm coming; Tom Hardy's Bane, the most brutal and possibly unintelligible villain in Nolan's Batman series. The scale of this masked menace’s threat is established in an Inception-esque action sequence aboard a plane that sets a high standard for the remainder of the picture, which deals with the actions - and, of course, the consequences - of Bruce choosing to don the cape and mask all over again.

"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in."

The whole film is laden with twists, proverbs, metaphors, gadgets and action scenes, and is so smoothly edited that its running time of almost three hours is barely noticeable. It breaks the curse of the "rule of thirds" in movie trilogies not by changing the rules of the series, but by expanding on them. One could easily lose themselves in the numerous issues the film raises, be they trust, societal manipulation, the significance of the stock market in the modern era, or why anyone would wear a mask to fight crime in the first place. But, at its core, any superhero film falls, or rises, on how suspenseful, well-acted and well-written it is. The Dark Knight Rises scores high marks in all three categories, with new gadgets (and cinematography) to dazzle the eye, new action sequences to titillate fans, new villains that, while not as unsettling as Heath Ledger's Joker, threaten to be even more dangerous, and a rich new character arc in John Blake's. It's been an absolute pleasure to watch both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway mature as performers over the years, although, as in The Dark Knight, they and the other impressive leads (particularly Oldman, Hardy, Marion Cotillard and Michael Caine) come dangerously close to upstaging Batman himself, Christian Bale. Apart from Batman Begins, none of the films in the trilogy have really felt like "his", but the writing is strong enough that this is a minor hindrance.

Moreover, The Dark Knight Rises is deceptively pretentious. Unlike Inception, where the cipher-like characters seemed shoehorned into an unnecessarily labyrinthine plot, the film is straightforwardly structured and not overly dependent on its twists, ensuring that repeat viewings should be kind to it. It’s also nice to see that Nolan hasn't lost his sense of humour; an especially amusing (and telling) moment occurs when Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox shows Bruce his new set of toys, only to be told “Now you're just showing off.” (Bruce Almighty, indeed!)

But in the midst of all this, Nolan never loses sight of the overlying focus of his trilogy - the aim to keep three aspects of chaos - deceptive understatement (Scarecrow, Ra’s Al Ghul), overelaborate hyperaction (The Joker) and straight-faced brutality (Bane) - under control, despite the corruption in the police force and the mistrust in the air. Watching The Dark Knight Rises, it's clear now, more than ever, that Nolan's Batman films are about more than one man's rise and fall, or vice versa; they're about the rise and fall of the American, make that Western, Dream, a two-sided coin that's as balanced and edgy as it's ever been.

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*It’s worth noting that the word “Catwoman” is never once heard throughout the movie, even though Selina’s not-so-secret identity is obvious; a clever move on Nolan's part, as it allows the character to maintain an extra degree of ambiguity.