james debate
james debate

Saturday 26 July 2008

It isn't often that I go to a film in the middle of the day and the cinema is packed full. It's even less usual that this packed cinema erupts in hearty applause after the film ends. But then the Dark Knight is no ordinary film.

It seems that so far this summer, with everything I have gone to see, the highlight of the evening has tended to be the trailers before the start of the movie. I am very pleased to say that I have found a film where this is not the case, and thus the summer was rescued. I'll attempt to remain as spoiler-free as possible here in case you haven't seen the movie.

To say that this film is better than other comic book or superhero movies is not fair. Neither to this film nor to the other comic book and superhero movies. Quite simply, this so far beyond any of them that it does a disservice to the Dark Knight to even consider it part of the same genre. This is not a film that deserves to be mentioned alongside Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk or even Batman Begins, but rather one that should be compared to the great crime thrillers in cinema. That's a bold statement to be sure, and after all the hype I have been hearing for the past few weeks I must admit I had my doubts ahead of seeing this movie. Would it really be able to live up to all this?

This film is incredibly different to what you'd expect from a superhero movie. It just doesn't have the campness and comic lightheartedness that you often see in such a film. But why is this? It's not the grittiness, we've already seen that in Batman Begins. What really surprises you when you watch this film is that despite being a 'Batman' film, a surprisingly small amount of the focus is on the dark knight himself. I mean don't get me wrong, you still know this is a batman film, but as much of the story is as focused on the likes of Eckhart's Harvey Dent and Oldman's James Gordon as the three of them seek to lift the people of Gotham City from the corruption and darkness that they have all become so resigned to.

The other shock to the system is the lack of moral clarity here. In Spiderman or Superman good is always Good and bad is always Bad, black and white, and though some of these movies in recent times (seemingly inspired by the first steps taken in Batman Begins it must be said) have attempted to blur the line a little, most have resulted in failure (see Spiderman 3 and Peter Parker's floppy haired emo doppelganger). The Dark Knight expertly presents us with some of the most evocative and thought provoking moral dilemmas of our age, presenting a world and a situation that is stunningly bleak, and unlike most films that attempt to be 'preachy' or hit a deeper note, this one does not give us a bunch of easy answers.

This Batman is not the uncompromising paragon of goodness and light, and he makes decisions that we would never want to have to make, and that we are unaccustomed to seeing our heroes make. This presentation of moral ambiguity allows the film to delve deeper into analyzing the psychology behind it all, what drives a homicidal maniac? what guides a figure of authority or a vigilante trying to do 'the right thing'? and what of the nature of being a 'hero', of inspiring the mindset of the general populace and being 'the hero that they need' as opposed to one who does what's best regardless of the cost, a hero that they can get behind, a symbol for a movement (reminiscent of v for vendetta), a deep philosophical analysis of why it is that we all need heroes, and what they really mean to us. To say this is all very ambitious is no overstatement, but it is all pulled off so brilliantly and with a human quality that it all works.

On top of this there is an unerring plausibility and realism about the whole thing, a theme that began with Batman Begins but is taken to a whole new level here. It all serves to add weight and gravitas to the more layered and thought provoking nature of the film. But it wouldn't work without the magnificent direction and cinematography of Christopher Nolan, who is the real star of this movie. Nolan managed to guide his impressive cast to give some of the best performances of their careers to boot. Christian Bale as Batman gives a far far far more confident and steely assured performance than in Batman Begins and is a major improvement. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes and adds much greater depth and credibility to her character than we had seen previously. Aaron Eckhart is flawless as Harvey Dent and Gary Oldman really excels with an authoritative yet vulnerable performance of his police officer James Gordon.

And of course, it has taken me this long to get to Heath Ledger and his performance as the Joker, because I chose to leave him until the end. Before today I would have told you that the most bone chillingly brilliant performance ever as a movie villain was Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Mission Impossible 3, and indeed it was fantastic, but this is simply something else. Ledger is THE definitive Joker now. If you haven't read at least one article declaring him odds on to posthumously get an oscar, then you really need to read more, because thousands of column inches are being used to say just that. The trailers implied something special would come from this, but it is only upon watching the full thing that you get to truly appreciate the electricity and beguiling menace of his performance, casting the Joker in a whole new light, one of real insanity, a man not motivated by conventional logic or desires for power or money, a man who as the film perfectly sums up 'just wants to watch the world burn' and is all the more frightening for it. This is one of those performances that means that when he's on screen you simply can't take your eyes off of him, and it's truly tragic that he will never know just how massive and career changing a performance he gave here, and that it's put him within reach of an oscar. I don't know about you but watching this aussie teenager in ten things i hate about you all those years ago i would never have imagined him collecting a statuette.

Merge all this brilliance with relentlessly frenetic and heart thumping action that keeps you on edge for the entire duration of the film and you have yourself one of the best thrillers in years and certainly the best superhero-based film ever. It is with great pleasure that I use this film to usher in the brand new ratings system that I will be using in all future reviews (and maybe some old ones if i can be bothered).


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