I was so tired for work-related reasons when I walked into the UK press screening of The Dark Knight on Friday that I feared to be unable to do this review by dint of falling asleep in reel 3.
I had absolutely nothing to worry about. Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film may not be the most fun superhero flick of the year (which accolade will remain with Iron Man, I suspect), but it is the best.
There has been some talk that Warners were cynically hyping Heath Ledger for an Oscar as a publicity stunt – I have no idea if that is true or not, but about an hour into The Dark Knight, I was naturally thinking ‘Ledger Oscar’. In a way, Ledger’s performance stands on the shoulders of work done by Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson; you’ll see flashes of those more familiar Jokers worked into his bravura performance, but they appear as respectful acknowledgements in an interpretation of the role that far exceeds them; Ledger’s Joker is daring, multi-layered and unbelievably committed, and it’s to Christian Bale’s credit that he even gets a look in.
It’s a damn shame – in the midst of the far greater loss of Heath Ledger himself – that we’ll never really get to hear the actor talk about how he approached the role, excepting whatever junket-style material he did during principal photography. On the other hand, it deepens the considerable mystery of Ledger’s Joker.
The very 9/11-style poster (see links below) that proved to be the jewel of the long and blazingly successful publicity campaign was not merely cashing in on the zeitgeist of post-terrorism culture; Dark Knight is an unveiled polemic on terrorism, with the insanity and rule-less ethos of Joker’s reign of terror standing in for a religion-inspired Jihad. Here Gotham faces a foe that wants to see the world burn at any cost. Joker’s appropriation of the mob in Gotham City is effortless because he himself is fearless and money is not his motive. Ledger’s Joker endlessly plays with the morality of the fragmented forces opposing him, using their own vestigial decency as a brutal and terrifying weapon.
There’s a fair bit of psychological and actual torture in Dark Knight, some of it even Saw-like, though all of the film’s four or five ‘gory’ shots have clearly been excised for the Director’s Cut. Despite a ton of great action, what is missing from this superhero movie are ‘cheer moments’; but they’re missing for a reason, since a great deal of the action involves horrendous moral choices. In fact, the sole cheer-moment of the film has nothing to do with Batman or The Joker at all, but it’s in that moment that Nolan delivers his message, and lifts our spirits up from two and a half exciting but very grim hours in the soulless darkness of a city that is losing hope and turning on itself. That’s the moment, in fact, that gets Dark Knight its fifth star from me.
The two and a half hour runtime could have been shaved to well under two hours at little cost, but on the other hand there is no real fat in this repast; it’s just a very big meal, and a very satisfying one. Michael Caine is predictably excellent as Bruce Wayne’s Butler/father/conscience, though it’s Morgan Freeman who gets the funniest scene this time (this is a movie that will not let the impact of Ledger’s Joker be overly diluted with the character’s trademark comic japes, even if the few allowed him are show-stoppers). Maggie Gyllenhaal has relatively little upon which to set loose her considerable acting skills as Wayne’s love-interest, whilst Gary Oldman has rather more stake in this outing as Lt. James Gordon than in Batman Begins, and acquits himself creditably, though his accent heads back to London once or twice in the heat of the moment..
Aaron Eckhaart also has a little trouble matching the conviction of the jaw-dropping ‘Two Face’ make-up. Eckhart’s Harvey Dent is believably all-American, but he struggles to find the bitterness of his alter-ego.
Composer Hans Zimmer’s tense refrain (originated with James Newton Howard in Batman Begins) permeates the whole of The Dark Knight, but never builds into any significant shape, and I must admit that this is one aspect where Nolan’s franchise suffers in comparison to Burton’s. Batman 3 could use a theme rather than a sustained musical wank – ultimately, this is a superhero movie, not Koyaanisqatsi.
But that said, it’s a hell of a superhero movie, and the first time anything in the fantasy-league has had anything important to say about world events since the Palpatine/Bush connection in Revenge Of The Sith.
Review posted 12.30am 21_07_08