The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012)

30Jul12

Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Tom Hardy (Bane), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Anne Hathaway (Selina), Marion Cotillard (Miranda), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Blake), Gary Oldman (Gordon), Michael Caine (Alfred). Screenplay by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Rating: 12A. Running time: 164 minutes.

One noteworthy plot-spoiler included.

When we are children, countless films appear to have an epic importance and size. For all the joy that The Lion King and Star Wars can still bring, we will never experience them as we once did. The battle both offered between good and evil loom large in undeveloped minds, and extract emotional responses effortlessly. The aesthetics and jollier scenes retain their value, of course. But we watch Scar and Vader with a definite sense of detachment as we grow older.

The capacity, then, to make a mature audience care about characters taken from a comic series; the ability to make us sit in awe of the action, swoon at the story, shiver at the villain and, yes, in my case almost tear-up at the sheer power of the score when mapped over certain visuals – that skill is rare. Film can be great without it, but cinema reaches peaks no other art form can when this unique potential is employed.

And Christopher Nolan, aged forty-two years as of today, already has seven films under his belt, of which the most recent three – The Dark Knight, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises – all exhibit that gift in abundance. Every one of them is epic. It’s the only word in the English language that is apt.

It was late on that I clicked and clocked the magnificence of what I was seeing. It had been awesome all through, but sometimes it takes a while to realise you’re witnessing something truly special. And my hairs gave in and delivered goosebumps about two-thirds through. By this point, Bruce Wayne, and with him Batman, has been an outcast from Gotham for weeks, a decent hour of screen time. Whilst stranded in a foreign prison, Bane has subordinated the city to the dictates of his nihilistic, anarchic whims. Obviously all seems lost. This terrorist is so extreme that he has his hands on nuclear technology, and the time bomb is ticking. But no need to prepare yourself for the cliché of race-against-the-clock rapid wire connecting. He’ll use it as a source of tension, but Nolan nowadays would never stoop so low.

The moment comes, though, when Wayne makes his inevitable and miraculous return. He has Gordon light up one of Manhattan’s many now-broken bridges with a bat-shaped flame ball. The camera pans way out, Zimmer’s score soars. Bane looks up and on, and the picture speaks a million words. We know by now what it means to Gotham, and we know what awaits us in the film’s final leg.

Nolan’s eye for action is unusual. No quick jump-cuts – otherwise obligatory nowadays in fight and chase sequences – are to be found here. What’s most memorable instead are those long, majestic pivots that the camera makes, normally slowly swaying from behind the batcycle, cape draping in the wind. It’s a touch often used that never gets old as a way of elevating the tone. He likes to use it for reaction shots too, and it always acts as a breather for us to think in what would otherwise be pacey scenes.

And that method is central to the depiction of Bane. The ground surrounding his feet seems to rotate a touch slower than it otherwise would. We look up at him, always. Like Vader, he has an obscuring and mystifying mask, but his forehead and neck bulge out of it. The distorted voice is jarringly comical, but Hardy for the role has become hench personified. He marshals an army of thugs as infatuated as Tyler’s foot-soldiers in Fight Club, and he wreaks havoc purely with the purpose of causing pain, where the Joker would have opted for humour.

It’s tempting to call the whole thing Hobbesian, but this is no normal state of nature and war of all against all where the police force has been rendered powerless. You would expect rough equality in such a concrete jungle, but here we have a strand of anarchy in which hierarchy persists. Bane is the brutal director intent on obliterating everything, and for a long time he appears untouchable.

But naturally, he isn’t. He’s human, and this is cinema. For the first time, though, a villain has created a situation in which Batman’s dependence on others for success is sent sky-high. Freeman as Fox returns and radiates coolness, casually wheeling out new gadgets and vehicles when the entire fleet seems wrecked. Oldman, as Gordon, remains central, and Gordon-Levitt is solid as Blake, a new and nifty cop on the scene. Alfred, on the other hand, is gone by this point, after a remarkably piercing and emotional exchange with Wayne.

But Bruce’s main accomplice is ultimately the sexier of two new femme fatales. Her character is catwoman; we know her better as Anne Hathaway. Never has she looked, moved and snarled so well. The other femme is Cotillard, who provides a final twist that offers the only moment in the film that does not work. Her true status is a surprise alright, but not an impressive one. It just doesn’t gel. Her deception feels like a tacky source of extra tension, at a time in the film when new developments really aren’t needed.

But Hathaway steals the show. She’s the perfect injection of sauciness and slapstick into a tale that could have descended into much deeper darkness in the absence of the Joker. And yet she isn’t a sideshow. She’s weaved into the narrative whilst making events unpredictable. When she comes on screen our pupils contract, if some other organs aren’t busy being stimulated.

When all this is added up – the extent of Bane’s machismo and success, the sustained development and resurrection of Bruce Wayne and Batman. The themes that both reflect, and the sheer balls and genius with which it is all tied up and captured – the product is a spine-tingler. I had the advantage of IMAX, but I’m certain it wasn’t necessary. Nolan has made a blockbuster for the ages. Don’t ever again make the Golden Age fallacy of thinking the best films were all in the past. Our grandchildren will watch The Dark Knight Rises, as children and as adults, like us: in a mental storm of awe.

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