Cinema review: The Dark Knight

August 5 2008 at 9:54 pm (Cinema reviews)

There’s a scene in Tim Burton’s Batman in which Jack Nicholson’s Joker executes a would-be business partner in a board meeting using a customised hand buzzing ring. Nicholson literally makes a song and dance out of it and ends the scene laughing at the frazzled, charred skeleton that remains.

There is a similar scene in Christopher Nolan’s second Batman outing in which Heath Ledger’s twitchy Joker performs a magic trick with a pencil. It’s a shockingly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it piece of hilarity that illustrates the character’s insanity all the more effectively, and represents just how intense this film is.

The Dark Knight picks up where Batman Begins left off. There’s a new criminal in town, a mysterious scarred guy who wears face paint and only goes by the name The Joker. His introduction during the slick opening heist is unforgettable. But Batman (Christian Bale) has other things on his mind. There is a spate of copycat crimes by fake Batmans and he is considering leaving the crime-fighting duties to new DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).

Of course, that’s just the start. This is a big movie, full of action. There are some great fight scenes (although it’s a little violent for a 12A) and a terrific chase sequence in which Batman speeds through a tunnel on the supercool batpod. There’s always a lot going on but under Nolan’s confident hand you never feel like it’s going to overflow. Despite there being more than one villain (and in fact more than one hero), it never suffers from the Spider-man 3 problem of too many baddies spoiling the broth, even if it is a little too long.

Despite what many might assume, this is not Ledger’s movie. Yes, his performance is every bit as incendiary as you hope but there is no ‘for Heath’ at the start of the credits. There is also a misconception here – there’s talk of a posthumous Oscar or at least a nomination. Despite these kinds of films often getting overlooked at awards nights, this is the kind of performance that wins big awards whether the actor is living or not. If Ledger hadn’t died, people would be talking about this performance using just the same superlatives as they are.

The truth is, though, that all the performances are powerful enough to make this something of an ensemble piece. Ledger is the quintessential Joker rewriting everything you thought you knew about this iconic character – outshining a three-time Oscar winner is no mean feat. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are both as good as they were in Batman Begins even if they have less screen time. You cannot help but admire Aaron Eckhart for his nuanced performance as Gotham’s ‘white knight’ and Gary Oldman for beefing-up the role of Commissioner Gordon. Sadly with so many more important characters, Christian Bale feels strangely sidelined, with the focus shifting so frequently.

The tightness of the script and the visual style at times makes the film come across more like a traditional crime movie – parallels with the work of Michael Mann, Heat in particular, cited by some critics are understandable.

As already mentioned, this is a big movie, dark but ultimately optimistic, and deals with some important ideas and themes. The battle between good and evil is familiar to everyone, but here it is analysed in depth. The Joker occasionally comes across like a more sophisticated version of the Saw films’ John Kramer, plaguing Batman with moral dilemma after agonising moral dilemma, which give some brilliantly tense moments – the ‘two boats’ sequence is particularly nail-biting.

So believe the hype. It’s nice to have a film that meets its lofty expectations and then exceeds them.

Rating: 5/5

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