The Dark Knight Rises (2012) ★★★★
Dir Christopher Nolan, USA, 165 mins
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Marion Cotillard
Christopher Nolan’s reputation for producing classy, complex mainstream genre pictures has remained intact since breakthrough Memento (2000). This sophomore effort, the ultra low budget Following (1998) was his debut, starred Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, an amateur sleuth hunting for his wife’s murderer. Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia (an inability to retain short term memory) and tattoos his body with clues as he delves deeper into a murky world whose characters motivations are never concrete. The increasingly fragmented plot replicates his state of mind and pushes the audience to re evaluate every scene as we skip back and forth surveying what was or maybe wasn’t. It is a film that after many viewings can be perceived differently each time and a unique, tragic twist on film noir.
It is Nolan’s willingness to develop his own screenplays (generally in collaboration with brother Jonathan) that has enabled a quality control resulting in thriller Insomnia (2002), in this one case a remake of a 1997 Norwegian original, and sleight of hand mystery The Prestige (2006). Inception (2010), literally a subconscious heist film, is perhaps his greatest achievement alongside Memento.
Resuscitating the Batman franchise potentially seemed an ill fit but with Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) Nolan tailored the superhero genre for his own purposes. His Gotham City is set in a realistic social context and as each film has progressed he has built in an epic tale. At its core these films deconstruct what the superhero represents as an entity and query ethical conundrums on a political level. We have come a long way, thankfully, since Batman and Robin (1997).
The Dark Knight Rises is the concluding part of this cycle and is set eight years after its predecessor. After taking the rap for the death of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has hung up his cowl and is now a recluse. Crime has significantly lowered in the city due to the introduction of the Dent act. A break in by cat burglar Selina Kyle, aka Cat Women, (Anne Hathaway) revives Wayne’s interest and sets forth a wave of conspiracy taking in board room machinations at Wayne Enterprises and the introduction of the gargantuan Bane, who has his own agenda on a grander scale.
After a cracking, Bond esque opening as a plane is hijacked mid air, Nolan quickly settles into spinning multiple plot intrigues that have characterised this set of films. It is the merger of these strands as a whole that never makes the mammoth running time seem a chore, a breakneck pace ensures that this remains absorbing. The weight of decisions made in The Dark Knight also loom over this film, white lies made for best purposes at the time are exposed and questioned in the public arena adding weight and depth to the plot. Set pieces are expertly orchestrated with panache, a highlight being Bane’s takeover of Gotham’s stock exchange and the torment he dishes out to the bankers. By the stage where Bane’s plan is fully in action a way back seems implausible.
Bale holds the various elements together at centre stage. Here we find Wayne a broken man, physically and mentally, whose self sacrifice for a greater whole has brought personal loss and isolation, a contrast to his youthful endeavour in the original. It is great to see him finish off the arc of this character in a genre where such talk is usually redundant.
Hardy’s Bane is not as wickedly appealing as Heath Ledger’s Joker but a fitting adversary. If the Joker possessed a mental rivalry with Batman, Bane’s is physical. Hardy relies on his hulking physique to emote (his mouth is obscured by a contraption throughout the film) and he works wonders with so little. The voice, which caused some concern on an early release of footage, is decipherable although at times distracting (think a more fluid Stephen Hawking crossed with Merchant Ivory gent).
Bane’s reason for his “reckoning” upon Gotham does provide the one murky aspect of the film. In this post 9/11 world, fear and terrorism, in turn, each formed topical subtext for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight Rises equivalent would be revolt; the Occupy protests an obvious influence. Bane’s rebellion has more fascistic overtones, turning Gotham into a police state with ghettos and kangaroo courts. He uses capitalism against the consumers to achieve this goal so maybe this can be viewed as the ultimate in revenge fantasy, taking matters to their natural extent of implosion. This is entirely open to interpretation, just an intriguing footnote in what is of course pure entertainment.
There are minor quibbles. A major twist during the finale feels entirely unnecessary and there are other plot points which are simply implausible, one cruncher especially. Out of the supporting cast Hathaway is fine as Cat Women, although her character does flitter in and out of the film, more attractive addition with cursory function. Caine, as faithful servant Alfred, and Joseph Gordon Levitt as cop John Blake are standouts. Blake unexpectedly occupies a lot of screen time, particularly once the people of Gotham take responsibility on to their own shoulders.
The Dark Knight Rises does lack the finesse and clever plot turns of The Dark Knight. Having said that it wraps the series up in style, some may say with a bow on top, but there is enough ambiguity in the conclusion to deter accusations of implicitly selling out. After the disappointment of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus it is reassuring to see summer fare that is epic in scope but more substantial than its expensive parts. Let’s just hope the same can be said for the inevitable, unnecessary reboot.