Movie: The Dark Knight Rises
Director: Christopher Nolan
I’ve been racking my brains for a week trying to think of some artistic analogy with which to introduce this film. I couldn’t muster one. In actual fact, I’m pleased this review is belated, because it’s given me the chance to take the film in twice and see my opinion do an almost total 180. I thought The Dark Knight Rises was a beautiful, contrarian disaster the first time I watched it – perhaps I was too overhyped or emotional, or a Friday evening viewing after a stressful week at work was too much. Or, perhaps not. Perhaps the level of spectacle, emotion, and bombast is so huge and striking that it’s too much, requiring a second viewing to have everything fall into triumphant place. For The Dark Knight Rises IS triumphant, a glorious and mesmerising swansong for the most beautifully made and hugely affecting comic book film series ever realised. It will lend itself to repeated viewing, even though you already know the twists and turns and reveals and super-charged ending, because it’s a watershed moment – an overwhelmingly moving farewell for those of us who grew up with the Caped Crusader, and you may never want to let it go.
It’s easy to look upon this as the last great mass cultural event of our time, as I have seen it described elsewhere. The level to which the film grasped the public imagination and consciousness is incredible. There’s a sort of poignancy to seeing Christopher Nolan’s sublime trilogy reach its epic conclusion, as never before has someone invested a comic book figure or symbol with such humanity, pathos, and courage. This Bruce Wayne/Batman is believable and relatable, a true hero for our times and representative of the world we recognise around us. This Gotham is dark and troubled in the same way as any big city of the world, even if real life villains aren’t always this colourful or anarchic. The crime figures are brazen and demented but symbolic of very human weaknesses – corruption, madness, reaction. They seize and consume the imagination in a way hitherto unheard of, such that as many fans will get behind their overpowering personalities as behind Batman’s troubled veneer. Bane is no exception – a somewhat more aloof villain than the quietly menacing Ra’s al-Ghul or the Joker’s intoxicating agent of chaos, but at the same time realer, more present, more recognisable. His is the chillingly graceful and complex scheme that threatens to undo a Gotham blanketed in peace for perhaps the first time in its rocky past, and which compels an aged Bruce Wayne to bring the Batman back one last time.
The Dark Knight Rises is set eight years after the events of its predecessor, which saw Batman flee Gotham as the scapegoat for Harvey Dent’s murderous rampage. Yet, that self-same Dent has given his name to Harvey Dent Day, an annual memoriam for the man whose heroic crusade put so many of Gotham’s villains behind bars before he lost his mind. The city is, ostensibly, safer and more secure than ever, with organised crime a thing of the past and a better class of criminal – such as Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway) – stealing only from the rich and even then with such elegance or infrequency that the police are rarely troubled. However, all is not as it seems. Guilt over what really happened with Dent is eating away at Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Rookie John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)’s suspicions and murmurings of discontent are shut down at every turn, while Bruce Wayne himself (Christian Bale) is a recluse, shut up in the sprawling opulence of his manor and refusing to see anyone. The Batman hasn’t been seen in eight years and the populace is unsuspecting. Against this background of veiled unrest slinks the masked, mysterious Bane (Tom Hardy) – a legendary mercenary, now using the tunnels beneath Gotham to fashion a boldly extravagant master-plan that will unseat the city. Scarred and haunted by the events of yesteryear, Wayne must don the Batcape once more and rescue his home from a foe and a threat unlike any it has ever faced; one which threatens to engulf the city in complete disorder at long last.
Perhaps the most striking thing about The Dark Knight Rises is the fact that it takes place against a background of class warfare. Wayne himself loses his fortune at one point, Kyle takes only from those who have more than they need, and Bane is at heart an anarchist – his scheme essentially a plan to strip Gotham of its wealthy elite and empower the proletariat. The film is peppered with references to the Occupy movement and the backlash against corporate invulnerability. It has a murky disillusionment and despair which captures the way the winds have changed since last we visited the city. Even the change of filming location, with New York taking Chicago’s place as the scene of Gotham, does much to visually and aesthetically alter the mood. It seems bleaker and more staid, far from the haven of peace and security its authorities believe it to be. The characters we know and love are also markedly more downbeat – Wayne has never quite recovered from what happened to Rachael Dawes, and the beatings inflicted upon his body have taken their toll. Commissioner Gordon’s family have left him and he struggles with the enormity of the lie he’s perpetrated on Gotham. Even the loyal Alfred (Michael Caine) is at breaking point over Wayne’s reclusive ways. It is fitting then that the new characters should offer so much in the way of excitement. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the smoothest of all, embracing a prominent central role with gusto and completing the transition to serious, grown-up actor that began in earnest with Inception and flourished with 50/50. He may very well be the finest thing in this film, an everyman with consummate faith in the Batman and moral courage of the highest order. Anne Hathaway also impresses as our generation’s Catwoman – though she’s never referred to as such – and sinks her teeth into a very fun role. I, personally, am not a particularly big Hathaway fan and unlike everyone else don’t think she steals the show, but she does make Kyle her own and brings a sensuous touch of glamour and spark to the film. (I’ll not dwell upon the backflipping-out-a-window-in-stilettos or her general choice of footwear, because Paula Patton’s wearing flats in M:I 4 probably set my hopes for realistic female action heroes too high.)
Bane underpins the entire story with a shrewd, constant menace. Hardy plays him surprisingly low-key, as when he’s not punching through walls with his fists, he has an air of intelligence and refinement that belies his sordid planning. The voice is oddly public schoolboy, but thankfully the performance does much to banish the memory of the character’s largely mute, cartoonish and animalistic appearance in that 1997 film which shall not be named. The story itself has ambition in droves. In grappling with real world insecurities over stock markets and terrorism, Nolan roots his opus in grim awareness and forces his characters to confront threats which impact all of us. The set-pieces are magnificent; the breathtaking sequence in the football stadium that anchored the trailer standing out for sheer force and impact. It is a pity that this was not saved for the film alone so that audiences could savour it more, but it is merely the beginning of a last act that is as gripping as it is chaotic. Much of my initial criticism was levelled at this last act and I do feel it still stands as a bit of a calamitous mess, but perchance that’s the point – to see something so sinister and unlikely suddenly derail everything is what makes Bane’s threat so visceral. Besides, it’s not without surprises (even if you’d see the most prolific one coming a mile off), and Cillian Murphy’s brief cameo is absolutely inspired.
There are nonetheless considerable weaknesses – romantic subplots that don’t ring even vaguely true, underdeveloped characters (will we ever know anything more about Lucius than that he’s good with technology?), and bizarrely-timed plot twists (Wayne being dumped in a far-flung prison halfway through) rank chief among these. It can be frustratingly self-aware and while the ideas or vision can’t be faulted, they aren’t always underpinned with excellence. At times, it is in short too grandiose, too huge, too momentous, and too much. Yet, having seen how easily these criticisms fall away on revisiting the film, they’re certainly not the aspects that should be dwelled upon. Chris Nolan may have made the weakest film of the trilogy, but he’s hardly nuked his baby, as I thought at first. He and his team have made a powerful and exhilarating final chapter that will justly see this trilogy go down in history. They’ve taken characters we’ve all cherished since childhood and turned them into legends, leaving us with a cinematic adventure that we can treasure always. With the majestic strains of Hans Zimmer’s score soaring over a mouth-wateringly open ending, it’s almost unbearable to see this come to its magical end.
This was the movie event of the summer, if not the year, and may well rank as one of the benchmark moments of the decade. I think it’s safe to say I’m not the only one who feels bereft in its wake. Indeed, the only real question on everyone’s lips now ought to be…where to from here?
Review written by Grace Duffy