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Wednesday, 1 August 2012


Let's start by saying Christopher Nolan must be cool under pressure. With Batman Begins he re-booted a comic book legend with the brave origin story many fans had been waiting for; a dark, brooding piece of work that takes its time to tell the story of Bruce Wayne's journey from scared child, to lost soul, to conflicted hero of Gotham City.  Received well by over-joyed fans, it was a unique new take on Batman, happily crushing the memory of Joel Schumaker's effort with "that movie that shall not be named", and a marked success for the man who already had a reputation as the exciting talent behind Memento.  Before moving on to the sequel Nolan brought Christian Bale and Michael Caine (the perfect Alfred) along for the ride with the Hitchcockian The Prestige, in which his ability to manipulate an audience in the best way shone through.  It is a movie about magicians trying to out-do one another, which itself plays out as a magic trick for the audience, in just the way one is described in the movie.  The budget was upped, and so too were the stakes and the brains, as he brought us The Dark Knight, with which he showed us just how smart he thought his audience might be; his was no simple superhero story, it had become a grand allegory, a crime thriller akin to Michael Mann's Heat, with twists, turns, dark themes and tough politics, with which other directors simply wouldn't have bothered.  Nolan appeared to have a Godfather situation on his hands, as he left The Dark Knight on a cliffhanger ending, an ending he says he was happy with; he claims to have had no intention of completing a trilogy unless they found the story to tell.  Well, after a little 2010 success called Inception (you may have heard of it?) they found said story...and boy, what a story they found!  If Nolan felt the weight of expectation on his shoulders, of either the Batman fans waiting for the conclusion that wouldn't drop the ball, or the cinema fans who haven't seen him put a foot wrong yet, the result doesn't suggest even a hint of it.  The Dark Knight Rises shows itself to be the biggest film he has ever made, grand in scale, Dickensian in delivery, and again not without its political teeth, as it unashamedly reveals itself to be, effectively, a war film, and a very good one at that....

Eight years since the Batman was outlawed as a thuggish criminal who killed police officers and the promising District Attorney Harvey Dent, Gotham has become safe, officials stopping organised crime pretty much entirely, locking away the perpetrators with no chance of appeal on the strength of the new Dent Act, founded, of course, on the lie that Dent died a hero.  Commissioner Gordon is living with his guilt, Bruce Wayne is holed away in his mansion, hobbling around on a stick, and the Batman is gone, but the crime figures are great and the public are happy.  Things cannot stay this way forever, of course; a mercenary is coming to rock the boat, he is a beast of a man, he is militant in his thinking, unwavering in his conviction, and brutal in his approach.  His plan is fairly simple in terms of the end game, and let's say it is not looking good for Gotham's citizens.  As Jim Gordon says, the Batman has to come back.

All the principle cast return, and they all bring their A Game.  Whilst they are more periphery characters here, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine deliver with both barrels, particularly Caine, whose Alfred faces a devastating and life-changing choice in this final part.  Somebody really needs to give Gary Oldman his Oscar now; his turn as Jim Gordon here is incredible, completing his character arc beautifully.

Christian Bale, for whatever issues people may have had with him as Bruce or Batman in the past, really goes somewhere in The Dark Knight Rises that he hasn't had to before.  If the growl of Batman has been beyond your understanding until now, perhaps this film will explain it for you, and if it doesn't it's not a problem, Batman gets something like fifty minutes screen time in total.  Yes, a Batman movie that is not that far off the three-hour mark is brave enough to keep Batman's appearance to the minimum until the final act.  If you think this is skimping a bit, I argue it is by design and there is good reason:  Eight years have passed without Batman, and all effort is made to ensure the audience have a taste of what that is like.  Bale's performance as the man who struggles with the possibility of having to be the hero again is superb, his interactions with Alfred never more moving, as he is told that putting on a suit won't make him what he was, that he is not Batman anymore, and is destined for failure.  This is a Bruce Wayne story, and it is as Wayne that we really see why Bale is known for his dedication to a role; this is a truly vulnerable human being we see.  For all the time without Batman, you do not feel the absence of Batman; the storytelling is just too engaging.  Of course, when Batman does arrive for the first time it is an epic entrance, cheekily prefaced by an obviously excited cop fans will recognise.  It is one of many spine-tingling moments that makes you want to cheer.

How are the newcomers?  Marion Coltilard is fine as new Wayne Board member Miranda Tate; I can't say I'm a huge fan of her in general, but she gets the job done.  Anne Hathaway destroys all pre-conception within her first couple of scenes as Selina Kyle and owns the role, playing the moral ambiguity perfectly.  Joseph Gordon Levitt plays an idealist cop named Blake, a reminder to Gordon of how he once was.  He is a little known character from the comic's lore, but is put to great use; to say he presents his arc well is an understatement...and what an arc it is!  He is also the star of a couple of my favourite scenes, and he delivers beautifully.

Now we come to Tom Hardy.  If you have seen Bronson, Warrior, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or indeed Nolan's own Inception, you already know he has a formidable versatility.  Though he is masked for the entire movie, he does not allow the mask to be the character, there is a real performance here.  There is discussion about the voice of Bane, some like it and some appear not to, but they were never going to please everybody.  I had no real pre-conception, and I don't know if that helps, but I find the way the voice is done, with the post-production boom, makes him overwhelmingly intimidating and intense, it carries the idea nicely that he is smart, scary, and a force with which Batman may genuinely be unable to reckon.  Having now seen it twice in two different auditoriums, I can confidently say there is NO ISSUE with regard to understanding everything he says.  The first time it may be fair to say you don't catch everything perfectly, just through not being ready, and when you can't see somebody speak, especially when their speech is muffled, it obviously tests your ears, but you still get the idea.  The second time, however, I got every single word.  It is a case of tuning your ear and being willing to listen rather than expect it to be spoon-fed.  This franchise has always been about keeping things grounded, and it applies here; the man is wearing a mask, and you would have to listen to him carefully in reality, so why not in the cinema?  People may write that off as an excuse and a way of me kissing Nolan's arse, but in fact I don't think this movie is without flaws, Bane's voice just isn't one of them.  There is a great deal of licence taken with the character of Bane, but with that licence they create a genuinely interesting story; they go somewhere with him I wasn't expecting, bravely humanizing the villain.  There is some debate about Heath Ledger's Joker being more memorable, but this has nothing to do with performance, and all to do with character; both are terrific performances, both characters have their devoted fans, and your preference for one over the other is merely going to depend on your personal taste.  For my money Hardy's Bane is the more interesting character, because he has a history, a heart, not to mention some beautifully written moments in which his intention terrifies, and some in which you realise how realistic and frighteningly understandable the public's reaction to his false "Power to the People" rhetoric is, where Joker was an Agent of Chaos, and that is really all you got to know.  Before people have a go, I love Ledger's Joker; as I say, it is down to the nature of the characters, not the performance from the actors.

Nolan has become a trawler's fishing net for cast and crew, with a healthy proportion of the people working on the final instalment of the Batman trilogy having worked with him on at least one of his previous movies.  Most notable is Wally Pfister, Director of Photography for everything he has done.  The movie looks stunning, and it is both a shame, and exciting, to know that he is heading off to make his own movies.  I wish him well and, with the slightest touch of fear, look forward to what Nolan will do next....without him.

Hans Zimmer once again brings his genius to proceedings, though here there is a sense of repetition of old ideas in the soundtrack.  That being said, perhaps it makes sense, with the film nicely coming back to the beginning of the story, and touching upon ideas and story points from both previous films.  Although the music may not be as obviously fresh and exciting as before, the new elements are nicely done, especially those of Bane's, which are thunderously powerful.

I have told as much detail as I am willing to, anything further would spoil.  Safe to say it is dark, bleak, even depressing to a point; it is shocking to see just how intent Nolan is on upping the stakes to just about as high as they can get.  He is relentless in putting you through a harrowing, chilling experience, and it is incredible how often you find yourself realising his Batman is a trilogy of its time in the real world.  His insistence on working in-camera as much as possible, without the aid of CGI, really grounds the action too; you truly feel the weight and intensity of it, because it is being caught for real, with real people and real stunts.  It is complex, in-depth storytelling, requiring your attention to detail, and as with all of Nolan's work, repeat viewing actually reveals more treats, rare for what we think of as a superhero film.  For that reason, if you are not a fan of the heaviness of The Dark Knight, avoid this.  It is long, but from the incredible opening scene, to the perfect final sequence and shot (which was apparently set in stone from very early on and never altered), it pulls the pieces together gradually, upping the pace as it moves along, and builds toward a final forty-five minutes which is undoubtedly due to be some of the most exciting cinema we will see this year.  Nolan is able to keep winding up the tension with a "Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse" approach through the whole of the second half; it isn't often we get to use the expression "on the edge of your seat" literally, is it?

I do have my quibbles, issues with moments I think were a tad misjudged, most notably a few "Hollywood moments" that feel forced, and surprisingly un-Nolan, which makes me wonder how much choice he had when it came to the crunch on these things.  They are superfluous to proceedings; the characters' arcs would have been perfectly fine without said moments.  These, along with a few trim backs that could have been made, keep it from being perfection, but I can forgive him the little indulgences when I consider just what an achievement the movie is, both on its own, and as the exclamation point to close the best vision of Batman ever created, and one of the greatest trilogies of all time!  Nolan and his work have been snubbed before, but I must say, if this does not receive the Oscar nod for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography, at least, the Academy's punishment will need to be more severe ;)

So, Chris, what next?  I vote an Adam Sandler rom-com!


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