Review: “The Dark Knight” starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger

The JokerAt the time of writing, it is highly likely that the new Batman film, entitled “The Dark Knight” is on its way to being the largest money-grossing film of all time. It certainly is exploiting the merchandising possibilities as well: it’s difficult to escape mentions of “The Dark Knight” these days, there is even a “dark hamburger” which is a unusual attempt at “marketing to the gut instincts”.

Thus, it’s with some trepidation that any impartial reviewer looks at this film. A movie that is as “commercial” as this rarely qualifies as high art; more often than not, it doesn’t qualify as entertaining. Generally, any cinema drenched in hype usually turns into two pointless hours in the dark with semi-stale popcorn and a ludicrously priced bottle of diet soda.

“The Dark Knight” fortunately, is not like this. It may be advertised like a commercial blockbuster, but it is so saturated with darkness and insanity that it cannot be considered to be part of mainstream genre.

The film begins where the last, “Batman Begins”, left off. Gotham looks better; the ramshackle nature of the city is less seen. Criminals are more afraid; a dishevelled looking Scarecrow is captured relatively easily. The underworld is in retreat, with the exception of a new villain, the Joker, expertly played by the late Heath Ledger. Apparently Ledger went out of his way to bring a new interpretation to the role, going so far as to isolate himself in order to create an atmosphere of total immersion into the character. These efforts succeeded. This Joker is semi-suicidal, not interested in power or domination, but rather is a force of nature, hell bent on destruction, murder and chaos (as such, I strongly discourage allowing small children to view this film). Ledger adds to the effect by making the traditional Joker cackling rare: this version is more subdued than any we’ve seen previously. He speaks in softer tones, is more unkempt than outrageous: even the purple and green clothing he wears stands out less than one might anticipate. He is cold blooded and toys with people psychologically, for example, he rigs two ferry boats to explode, and places the detonators with the passengers. The passengers are then forced to choose to either blow up each other’s boats, or to be blown up by the Joker. It is difficult to imagine Nicholson’s Joker, for example, being that drawn out or twisted.

Indeed, the entire plot can be said to be an extended chess game in which the Joker is the grand master. Batman, the new District Attorney Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon are all unwitting pawns moving as the Joker predicts. For example, the Joker senses that Batman is fond of Bruce Wayne’s childhood sweetheart (and Harvey Dent’s girlfriend), Rachel Dawes, and sets a trap whereby Batman cannot save both Harvey and Rachel. Additionally, the Joker uses his knowledge of Gordon’s precinct to engineer a plan to be captured and then escape. The only method by which Joker can be prevented from achieving his ultimate aim of breaking the city’s spirit – mainly by causing the downfall into madness of Harvey Dent, the city’s hero – is for Batman to take the blame for acts of vigilante violence for which Harvey is responsible. Batman’s “victory” in other words, is not much of a win.

Batman himself is far less interesting than the Joker. Christian Bale has tamed the angst-ridden Bruce Wayne; the billionaire’s main drama lies in wishing for an end to his role as the Caped Crusader so that he can take up with Rachel. This, however, is a half-hearted wish: for instance, the Joker wants Batman to take off his mask, but even with the threat of killing innocent people, Bale’s Batman refuses to do it. Whenever Bruce Wayne thinks of walking away, circumstances in which Batman would be useful emerge, and he doesn’t hesitate to don the mask once more. We are presented with a Batman who is locked into his role, not only from which he cannot escape, but one he doesn’t wish to escape. He is therefore more or less a “settled” character. This makes him rather tedious; furthermore, the playboy Bruce Wayne persona is just as dull. A billionaire with three models on his arm is such a cliche that were this film more realistic, those around him would likely question it.

Perhaps the real heroes of this film are the supporting actors: Gary Oldman is outstanding as Commissioner Gordon. I suggest that his performance is as every bit as good as Ledger’s: had not Ledger died, it might very well be Oldman who is being discussed as a potential winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Michael Caine does also well as Alfred, the butler; it is difficult to think of any film in which Caine has not excelled, and this is no exception. Furthermore, Morgan Freeman is a calm, capable and upright Lucius Fox. If they do make another Batman film, I believe it simply would not work without these three.

Other supporting actors fare less well. Maggie Gyllenhaal was presumably picked to play the role of Rachel Dawes because she could carry on where Katie Holmes left off: the two were nearly indistinguishable in being less than sympathetic. Aaron Eckhart, who was an admirable choice for the role of Harvey Dent, simply did not have enough time or lines to develop the character; it would have required a much longer film to show the roots of his madness and make his fall more believable. Eric Roberts is too obvious to play a realistic mob boss; I kept on expecting him to advertise spaghetti or Italian tomato sauce as an offer one couldn’t refuse.

The two and a half hours of this film fly right by; there is a sense that there should be more. It is very likely that this could have been made into two films rather than one. An alternative would have been a sequel that continued with the Joker; it is a pity that the fight between him and Batman will not proceed into the next film. Already rumours are flying that the next confrontation will be between Batman and the Riddler; I don’t envy the actor who gets the role of the cryptically inclined super villain. He has a giant pair of clown shoes to fill.

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