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Film review: The Dark Knight Rises***
All the campiness has been knocked out of Batman. The gaudy costumes, the “BIFF”s and “POW”s of the 60s TV show are a distant memory, replaced by a sense of foreboding so unrelenting it becomes irrational. The Joker’s line “Why so serious?” in The Dark Knight might apply to all three Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan (the first was Batman Begins, in 2005) – yet in fact the Joker, with his flamboyant makeup, was a last bit of campiness linking up with the old Batman. The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t even have that, its villain being Bane (Tom Hardy) whose only trait is a dull mask (not a costume, more a kind of oxygen mask) and a Darth Vader voice.
The film makes you wonder how much further the comic-book audience can be dragged into doom-laden drama without rebelling. Not only is it 164 minutes long, but the action scenes are sparse and our nominal hero almost irrelevant: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), a.k.a. Batman, spends most of the first half limping pathetically around his mansion – a crippled recluse who’s shut himself off from the world – and much of the second half stuck in a dark pit from which escape is (almost) impossible. Probably not since The Passion of the Christ has a protagonist suffered so passively for so much of the running-time only to rise, literally – Batman from the pit, Jesus from the cross – in the final act.
This is a feelbad movie, as stylised as a dirge. Bruce, we’re told more than once, craves Death. Alfred the butler (reliably great Michael Caine) is more like a weepy old lady, urging the boss to drop this mask-and-cape business and settle down with a good woman. You’ll never be the man you used to be, he laments; “I won’t bury you!” he adds defiantly. Way to inspire confidence, Alfred.
Above all, this is a world infected by lies. Bruce himself lives a lie, being a man with a secret identity. Gotham City is ruled by a lie, the lie that Harvey Dent was a hero whereas – as we know from The Dark Knight – he was actually a villain. The reason why Nolan’s vision is more cynical than previous incarnations, however, is that lies are now seen as necessary, even nourishing. “Trust the world,” Bruce Wayne is told – but, given the identity of the person who tells him this (I can say no more), he’s probably right not to. The truth shall not set you free in The Dark Knight Rises. Bruce and Alfred part ways after the butler hits him with a truth he’d rather not hear. The truth about Harvey Dent is finally divulged by Bane, the villain, who claims he’s giving power to the people – but in fact his quasi-Communist regime (“This used to be someone’s home”; “It’s everyone’s home now!”) is shown to be a sham, with kangaroo courts and summary executions.
Those scenes get a bit dodgy, especially when a street fills up with hundreds of uniformed cops – an uneasy image even in Buster Keaton’s Cops, back in 1922 – only here the cops are viewed as liberators. The Dark Knight Rises is obviously right-wing, even reactionary, out to demolish the socialist rhetoric used (most recently) by the Occupy movement. Anne Hathaway is pert robber-cum-Catwoman-surrogate Selina, warning Bruce that “there’s a storm coming”, and he and his rich friends had better watch out – only to see the error of her ways when the storm finally arrives. Trust the coppers (and the Bat), goes the message; the other way lies anarchy.
In a more triumphal film that message might seem sour, even objectionable. But The Dark Knight Rises is a bit like those Victorian novels where bad things keep happening (the ending quotes Sydney Carton’s famous sign-off in A Tale of Two Cities): it gives so little that what little it gives becomes disproportionately touching. The hero’s a spent force gearing up for one last hurrah, the villain a charmless brute (it does seem perverse to cast Hardy and not show his incongruously soft baby-face, a huge part of his power as an actor). The look is dark to the point of being turgid, the fights monotonous punch-ups – why does Batman never try to dislodge Bane’s mask, which he knows would cause him excruciating pain? – the gadgets cool but under-used. Yet the film gets to you, even more than The Dark Knight where Ledger’s flamboyant antics threw the thing out of balance (at least for me).
I don’t think I could watch this film again; it’s a bit of a slog, hitting much the same note for nearly three hours. Yet I also can’t deny the lump in my throat in the final scene, nicely perched – like the last shot of Nolan’s Inception – on the edge of ambiguity. There’s a lot of ambiguity here: a clean-energy source is also a nuclear weapon, an antagonist is also a brother – Bane is apparently the son of Ra’s Al Ghul, Wayne’s father-figure in Batman Begins – a people’s revolution is also a tyranny. Nolan’s vision has the paranoid contours of a conspiracy thriller. Everything is monitored (Selina craves a program called ‘Clean Slate’, to expunge her name from the State’s various databases), everyone is jaded; making a fresh start is almost impossible. Only sadness is real in this not-so-comic comic book – sadness and regret, and the sense of being battered by life. Biff! Pow!
DIRECTED BY Christopher Nolan
STARRING Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine