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The Dark Night

USA 2008
Directed by
Christopher Nolan
150 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Dark Knight

Synopsis: Batman (Christian Bale) is living legend in Gotham City although the populace is divided over whether he is a hero or a villain. When the new D.A., Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) call on Batman to help them rid the city of organized crime they have not bargained with the intervention of The Joker (Heath Ledger) who strikes a deal with the various mobs to take down The Caped Crusader.

It is unavoidable that one wants to compare Christopher Nolan’s latest addition to the Batman franchise with Tim Burton’s masterful opening chapter, Batman, released nearly 20 years ago in 1989. Burton’s film was set in a retro-Gothic fantasy universe, raised its characters into larger-than-life figures, featured a bravura performance from Jack Nicholson as the sociopathic Joker and treated the whole thing with a certain sense of black humour that remained affectionately tied to its comic book origins. The Dark Knight on the other hand is set in a city that looks like any modern day American metropolis, has characters with dramatic credibility, features a bravura performance from Heath Ledger as the sociopathic Joker, features a powerful score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard and is characterized above all by a sense of the tragic. Unfortunately I missed Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) but clearly the dominating consequence of his helming of the series is the bringing of Batman out of the comic book superhero universe and into the real world of flawed heroes. Given the huge success of Spielberg’s recently-released “Crystal Skull” edition of the Indiana Jones story, which goes in exactly the opposite direction into the world of escapist juvenilia, it will be interesting to see how Nolan’s film does at the box office.

There’s no doubt that The Dark Knight is a superbly-made action film - the stunt work, SFX and editing are outstanding - although it is equally clear that the Golden Age of the action movies was the 1980s. Back then, seeing big rigs blown up was awesome stuff but we’ve seen it so many times since and are too aware of computer enhancement for such things to have a comparable effect, even with the bass woofer rumbling our seats. But this is hardly what makes The Dark Knight highly commendable. What does is that Nolan, who, along with his brother, Jonathan wrote the script, has given us a film that enables us to engage with the characters. This is done somewhat over-obviously in the latter part of the film when The Joker sets up a situation in which two boatloads of ferry passengers have to choose to save themselves or die together but what sustains us throughout the film, when we are not getting our thrills from the bang-boom-bash, is that all the characters are placed in situations in which they have to make choices about their actions. This holds our attention much more than the action set-pieces. Good as they are, they would pall without the intellectual and emotional engagement.

The performances are excellent. As mentioned, Heath Ledger is extraordinary as The Joker, his performance fearless and it is tragic that he did not live to receive the accolades he deserves (he was awarded the Best Supporting Actor Oscar posthumously). Christian Bale, another actor who is known for his total dedication to his roles is excellent in his reprise of the conflicted Bruce Wayne. The choice of Maggie Gyllenhaal to replace Katie Holmes who played Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins (she subsequently married Tom Cruise) is unusual although no doubt it reflects Nolan’s preference for acting chops over photogenic looks and she too is, as always, excellent. Aaron Eckhart is effective as D.A. Harvey Dent, a knight valiant who later in proceedings demonstrates a good deal less chivalry. Gary Oldman, also back from the previous film, turns in an equally good performance as the incorruptible police lieutenant and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman provide the modicum of light relief the film is allowed to display.

Although at times the details of the plot (and depending on the audio set-up of the particular cinema, sometimes the dialogue) are swallowed up by the thunderous action, The Dark Knight is a film that offers much more than a series of explosions and fight sequences, both engaging us in itself with its drama and in the context of America’s post 9/11 culture, providing us with an intriguing point of comparison to Burton’s original.




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