Friday, 20 July 2012

The Watcher - The Dark Knight Rises

Hope. The underlying message I got from The Dak Knight Rises was a reminder of the importance of hope.

At the end of the last film, Harvey Dent's crimes were covered up by two men to give Gotham City hope. In some ways it worked, cleaning up the streets with the resulting Dent Act (which in turn feels like a nod to Watchmen), but it robbed those same two men of their own hope and dignity.

I'm not going to recap the whole film. I'm here to comment and review, not summarise. Let's be honest, the chances are you won't read this piece until you've seen it for fear of spoilers. Because I am going to talk about the film in some detail, but as I say, I see no need to recap the story. I suspect you've seen it already! Let's be perfectly clear though, SPOILERS AHEAD!

Gotham is a brighter, cleaner beast this time around. A clear reflection of the eight years that have passed, in which the GCPD have dismantled organised crime with the aforementioned Dent Act. Where the two previous films used Chicago for the principal filming of Gotham, this concluding chapter has relocated to a mixture of Pittsburgh, Newark, Detroit and New York City to portray Bruce Wayne's metropolis. It was a slightly jarring change for me, with only Wayne Manor seeming to be a familiar sight. Ironically, even this filming location has changed - moving from Mentmore Towers during Batman Begins to Wollaton Hall for The Dark Knight Rises. Since the latter was the inspiration for the former, I'd say it was a close enough match to keep a sense of continuity, and of course Wayne Manor had to be rebuilt after the events of that first film.

Thankfully, the returning cast remain as one remembers - a truly excellent ensemble cast, with every member threatening to overshadow Bale as the leading man. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman are once again superb, immediately slipping back into the roles with seeming ease. Michael Caine brings a solid lump to the throat more than once with his heartfelt performance, especially near the end. It's Oldman though who really carries a significant portion of the plotline, as one of the two men who made a bargain that saved their city at the cost of their own hope. This is a father who has lost his family; a dedicated policeman who dearly wishes to absolve his guilt and acknowledge the true hero.

Of course it would be remiss of me not to speak of the other obvious returning actor, Christian Bale, who clearly relishes a chance to reclaim the limelight after being overshadowed both on and off screen by the late Heath Ledger. In The Dark Knight Rises, Wayne has also bargained away his hope and without it he has lost his purpose. A reclusive shut-in, Bruce almost haunts Wayne Manor like the Phantom of the Opera, albeit with a limp and a cane rather than scars and a mask - the toll on his body after time spent abusing it in his vigilante crusade. It's a wonderful reminder that Christopher Nolan's trilogy has been grounded in a sense of realism missing from other superhero films, and a lovely nod to The Dark Knight Returns as part of the pantheon of comic book and graphic novel source material these films have drawn from.

Alongside Frank Miller's most famous - and arguably his greatest - Batman story, the Nolan brothers and David S Goyer have clearly drawn from Knightfall and (surprisingly!) No Man's Land to create this compelling final chapter. There is also a large debt owed by the film to it's progenitor, Batman Begins. The Dark Knight Rises is filled with snappy flashes of the previous films, artfully used to underline emotional memories. Liam Neeson makes a welcome return as the League Of Shadows re-emerge - Ra's al Ghul reminding us that there is more than one way to be immortal. Rather than the fantastical Lazarus Pits of the comics, Ra's looms over proceedings as a symbol, much as he mentored Bruce to become more than a man; a legend devoted to an ideal.

Of the film's three prominent incoming characters, two have a connection to the man we first knew as a Ducard. Expanding from a line in the first film, Wayne's memory of Ra's Al Ghul remind us that he once "...had a wife, my great love. She was taken from me. Like you, I was forced to learn that there are those without decency that must be fought without hesitation, without pity. Your anger gives you great power, but if you let it, it will destroy you, as it almost did me." Beaten, broken and abandoned, Bruce languishes in a prison designed to instill hope in it's prisoners. The man responsible, Bane, identifies that the man behind the Bat no longer cares or fears death. To truly avenge the League, Bane must give him hope once more, then crush it out of him. It's a chillingly driven motivation and Bruce comes to believe Bane was once the young boy of prison legend - Ra's al Ghul's child, the only person to ever escape that hell. In a forgivably predictable twist though, Batman discovers that Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate is actually Talia al Ghul, as she turns on him in the final act.

Of these two characters and their respective actors, Tom Hardy is a tour de force, resonating undeniable power and presence through his posture, gestures and his eyes - robbed of full facial expressions by the mask. While just coming up short of the Joker, Bane has just enough theatrics to be engaging without coming close to parody. It's a triumph of a performance, laying the abomination that was Robert Swenson's portrayal to rest. My only quibble is that the sound mix on his voice is still wrong. Now it's too loud, as if there are speakers in the mask. It's a shame the dialogue wasn't remastered line by line, because it really doesn't sound like it was. Unlike Hardy, Marion Cotillard is simply bland and lacking in any significant presence. Spending most of the film masquerading as a Gotham socialite and business woman, the twist in her character is almost the closest in unfortunate pantomime the trilogy has ever come, particularly the delivery of her final lines.

Thankfully, Anne Hathaway is a revelation. A truly compelling character, every bit the match for Bruce Wayne both in and out of the mask. Fiercely intelligent, a gifted performer and a graceful acrobat/fighter, Selina Kyle is never labelled as Catwoman. Instead this is a believable character with understandable motivations and even friends outside of male paramours. Well, a friend. But still, another triumph. This is the de facto Selina Kyle for me now, rivalling Ledger's Joker in terms of defining - rather than reinventing - the character.

Saving the best for last though, it's Joseph Gordon Levitt who makes the film for me. The one man in the cast who holds on to hope, he galvanises both Gordon and Wayne back into action. A new character, John Blake is clearly influenced by a hybrid of Dick Grayson - an orphan whose life was helped by both Bruce Wayne and Batman - and Tim Drake - as the one young man in Gotham smart enough to work out that those two benefactors are one and the same.

The revelation that his true first name is Robin - a name he never cared for - and that Bruce has bequeathed him the Batcave in that name just feels right. He's a street level cop that impresses Gordon enough to make detective during the crisis - a nod to Dick Grayson's career in Blüdhaven I felt. Driven by his own parents deaths, Blake gives us a street level view of the police as Bane tears any sense of order from Gotham - a journey that takes him from an everyman rookie cop to the successor of the Bat cowl. I'm glad Nolan is closing the story as a trilogy, but it's nice to feel that the legend lives on.

The Dark Knight Rises is a great film, though I have to say that The Dark Knight edges it out for me. ...Rises has a few niggling issues, such as the issues with the sound mix and the change of locations for Gotham, plus Bruce Wayne's recovery does seem rather quick all in all. I feel that Nolan would have done better to show us the length of time that Gotham endures Bane's reign, so we might better understand quite how long it takes the Batman to rise again.

There are also numerous Chekov's Guns in the film, all deftly set up and fired, but quantity does not mitigate the plot device quality of the resolution of each. While this is mostly preferable to a sudden deus ex machina, it was still slightly jarring to realise I was suddenly checking off different elements from the film's exposition as they individually came to a head. Still, it held my attention for almost three hours and that's no mean feat when I'm shattered!

I have to say I do still wonder if this is the film we would have gotten if not for Heath Ledger's tragic demise. As I have said, The Dark Knight Rises it definitely a return to the themes and indeed some of the characters of Batman Begins, whereas perhaps we would have seen continued the escalation that The Dark Knight embodied were the Joker still available to the storytellers. I guess we'll never know.

The Dark Knight trilogy of Nolan Batman movies is over and each film is a towering achievement over the DC films that went before. After the brief teaser, I'm looking forward to seeing if Nolan can now guide Zack Snyder to similar lofty heights with Man Of Steel.

You could say I have high hopes.

Ben Fardon is very tired from the late night screening and moving house, but it's all been worth it!

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