The Dark Knight Rises
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 22nd July 2012
This final in the trilogy of deeper, darker Batman films places a considerable weight of expectation on the shoulders of director Christopher Nolan.
It was he who brought us the gravelly voiced Christian Bale and one of the first comic book “origin” stories with the excellent Batman Begins, reinvigorating a franchise that had started joyously with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in the 1980s, but had then gone downhill in its sequels. By 2005, the world was clearly ready for a grittier side to this very self-made superhero (don’t forget, Bruce Wayne builds his muscle and relies on gadgets, borne out of anger, not scientific mishap). Three years later, it was Nolan who staged one of cinema’s greatest bank robbery scenes and garnered Heath Ledger his posthumous Oscar in The Dark Knight.
So here we are – hotly anticipated, The Dark Knight Rises’ tagline alleges “The Legend Ends” – and it’d better end good.
Nolan is a great storyteller, and the narrative gets under way quickly. Eight years after Batman was falsely accused of killing district attorney Harvey Dent and his beloved Rachel was killed, we find Wayne holed up in his mansion, a recluse still tended to by the patient butler Alfred (Michael Caine), but physically the worse for wear and clearly not over his grief. The city which once loved Batman now carries on without need of him, as prisoners are locked up under a law enacted in Dent’s name. Clearly, any intended rise for our sallow-faced billionaire is going to be steep.
It takes a bat to catch a thief, as Wayne’s interest is piqued by Anne Hathaway’s cat burglar. Hathaway is superb, not just kick-boxing in six-inch gold heels, but casting out witty lines and welling up in tears with equal skill. The black-suited duo find themselves embroiled in the evil machinations of Bane (Tom Hardy), a terrorist with a bone to pick against Gotham, and one of the best, most frightening baddy voices since Darth Vader. If Hardy is unrecognisable in his Hannibalesque mask, it’s as much because he has bulked up and is clearly photographed to look gigantic.
One small gripe is Nolan’s reuse of – count ’em – five core actors from Inception. While it can be charming when directors recast their favourite talent in other films (Wes Anderson makes no bones about it, yet people can’t seem to get enough of Bill Murray and Owen Wilson), so much of the tone of this film evokes Inception that seeing Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Hardy and Caine at times distracts from what ought to be a Batman story. Similarly, the predominantly daytime shots of Gotham City make it look like any big American city, and less the comic-book land where a police commissioner might summon a superhero by shining a bat silhouette into the sky. When the roads don’t fold up into the sky, it’s almost disappointing. But not quite. In every other way the film is exhilarating, with a relentlessly exciting soundtrack and some sensational set-pieces, with fantastic police chases and impressive, explosive action.
While Bale is consistently good, the standout performances are Hathaway’s cat lady and Gordon-Levitt’s empathic policeman. Neither steals the show quite like Ledger did, but they bring energy and, remarkably, emotional meaning to Wayne’s life, and a superb movie-going experience to ours