Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dark Knight

The alarm bells started to ring the week before The Dark Knight opened here in the UK (officially on Friday, but with previews available pretty much everywhere on the preceding Thursday night), thanks mainly to the fact the film had opened in the States to an unbelievable amount of hype a week earlier.

I'm always suspicious when films get the best rating ever on imdb, start appearing at the top of bloggers' "Top 10 Films of the Year so far" lists, have the media calling for oscar awards, and fans boasting of having seen the film three or four times - all within just hours of the thing officially opening. Such ridiculous knee-jerk reaction, without proper time for reflection and comparison with some truly great movies over the last century, has invariably in the past lead to a set of expectations that can only realistically end in disappointment when one finally gets to see what all the fuss is about.

The Dark Knight is a film I've been waiting a long time to see, for a couple of reasons. One: Chris Nolan hasn't made a bad film yet (Insomnia is probably his weakest, but even that was extremely watchable) and his Memento still remains one of my favourite films of all time. Two: Heath Ledger has always shone as a chameleon-like actor (my favourite type) in everything he's done, even when the film he's appearing in has been pretty disappointing (Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm anyone?). Check out Monster's Ball, Brokeback Mountain and The Patriot (as well as the afore-mentioned Brothers Grimm) for examples of what I mean.

Of course in saying this I risk looking like one of those morbid idiots who are suddenly calling for an oscar for Ledger, based solely on some sort of Princess Diana-like overly sentimental obsession with death. Or like the sort of people who can ignore real talent in great films for years and years until the second they appear in a major mainstream blockbuster, when they suddenly think they've discovered a 'new' talent that's actually been around doing great work for years. Why IS it that people too lazy to bother go and see anything other than big budget movies at their local cinema multi-plex seem to think they're experts on discovering 'new' talent?! In my defence I'd like to point out that if you check back through previous blog entries you'll see I've been enthusing about Ledger (and his co-star in The Dark Knight, Christian Bale) since quite some time before pre-production work even commenced on The Dark Knight.

But (as ever!) I'm veering into off-topic rant mode. What I'm trying to say here is that with all the hype I was prepared to be hugely disappointed with the second film in the rejuvenated Batman franchise that's been co-written and directed by Nolan.

Admittedly the film has flaws. So let's get those out the way first. There's some silly, totally unrealistic gadget gimmick McGuffins that are completely unnecessary - the most ridiculous being a video wall that uses sonar to pinpoint someone anywhere in the city by their voice! There's a lack of emotional depth meaning there's no real viewer involvement or sympathy for any of the main characters which makes it hard to care whether or not one of them dies. There are a couple of rather bad edits and plot jumps that indicate this was originally a 4 hour movie that had to be drastically edited down even to make a two and a half hour cut. And I should add that a major weakness in my first viewing was the fact that although the IMAX hi-def presentation is exemplary, this is only true if you're not unfortunate enough to be sat in the first few rows where it's impossible to take in the whole frame, and one is at such an extreme angle you're likely to spend a great deal of the film's running time feeling nauseous. By all means go and see it at an IMAX for the best experience - but NOT if you're stuck with a seat in the first few rows!

But those minor criticisms I mentioned really are minor in the grand scheme of things, and the truth is I loved the film. So much so that I'm rather keen to go and see it a second time to catch the subtleties I missed on the first viewing. So much so that yup, at the moment this is at the top of my 'Best films I've seen this year' list. Bizarrely, the two and a half hour running time (which would usually have me running a mile with moans about 'self-indulgent directors who need to learn to edit') flew by, such that I was kind of disappointed when the film ended and didn't have another half hour or so to go.

Quite simply, the film has a depth and intricacy - and intelligence - that is quite astonishing for a big Summer blockbuster movie from Hollywood. And, those minor criticisms aside, it's pretty flawlessly executed, with great pacing, stunning cinematography, skillful editing and cast performances to die for.

I liked Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan's first take on the Batman franchise, but The Dark Knight is on a whole different level. Many are saying that it will be impossible for Nolan to make a better Batman film, and seem to be hoping he'll refuse to make a third on the basis that you should quit while you're ahead, and although I can see what people mean, I'd still like to see him try and top this one. When a director's best is this good, even his mediocre films are going to be worth seeing.

The obsession with Ledger's death means that certain critics are rushing to distance themselves from the gushing 'He should get an oscar' reports appearing on a daily basis at the moment. 'Christian Bale is the real performer here', says one critic. 'No! Aaroon Echkart is the ignored oscar contender' says another, 'his performance isn't a one-note pantomime trick like Ledger's and is far more subtle'.

I beg to differ! As Gary Oldman (who, incidentally, is the second best thing in the film, in another performance that deserves a 'Best Supporting Actor Role' nomination) repeatedly points out in promotional interviews, Ledger has created a truly astonishing and original take on a villain that will stand the test of time, and be remembered for years to come. It's an iconic performance of an iconic role. Just one example: there's a scene where Ledger's Joker approaches Bruce Wayne's love interest, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and somehow manages to convey pure male violence and aggression while on the surface playing it lightly as he playfully curls his hair effeminately behind his ears. It's a performance that alternately has you celebrating the pure joy of the maverick, while at the same time feeling an icy chill down the back of your spine.

Bale, so enigmatic in other films, seems to be coasting here and there's nothing really memorable about his performance - other than the silly fake voice adopted for when he's in costume, which just doesn't work and takes the film out of its neo-realistic take on the comic book character. Eckhart is fine, but he's really just playing the same character we've already seen in most of his films, and I never really bought into his 'so madly in love it drives him to insanity' relationship with Maggie Gyllenhaal's character.

Ledger, on the other hand, is totally mesmerising. A frison of anticipation and excitement enters the cinema every time he appears on screen, and he's reinvented The Joker character to an extent that even the very strong 'nobody will beat that' precedents set by Cesar Romero (in the 60's TV series) and Jack Nicholson (in the earlier films) are instantly forgotten.

This is one film that, for me, lived up to the hype. And it has sufficent plot and depth that I suspect I'm going to see it a second time at a cinema rather than wait for the shiny disc. Some argue that Nolan, as director and co-writer, has over-egged the pudding with too many strands, complexities and far-too-clever moral diversions that compare with the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Personally, I happen to like over-egged pudding in an industry that far too often seem to rely on dumb, formulaic content-free 3D software showcases. And the fact that such an intelligent, well constructed and well performed film has just won itself a 'best opening weekend ever' accolade, along with plaudits from critics and public alike is a cause for celebration.

Go see it if you haven't already. Even if comic book movies just aren't your thing. Just one word of warning: this is, as the title implies, a very dark film, and despite the comic book connotations is NOT suitable for children.


Steve Langton said...

We're going to see this tomorrow, and I'm even more stoked to see it after reading your thoughts.

Ian said...

I'm envious Steve. You're in for a treat. By the way, only just discoverd your blog. Nice one!

Steve Langton said...

Thanks very much, Ian. Your review is absolutely bang on.