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Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Note: This is a pretty long review, but should be almost completely spoiler-free.

It’s been a long time coming (four years almost to the day, in fact) but the final instalment of Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight Trilogy is here at last.

In 2005, we all sat with trepidation as we watched Batman Begins, not knowing what we were in for after the atrocity that was the previous Batman movie (1997’s Batman & Robin, directed by Joel Schumacher)

Batman Begins saw a young Bruce Wayne triumph over his lust for revenge to become a hero and save his beloved Gotham City from tearing itself apart from fear, defeating his former mentor Ra’s Al Ghul in the process. It was almost universally applauded as a return to form for the Batman movie franchise, and a sequel was inevitable.

2008 saw the release of The Dark Knight, possibly the most eagerly-awaited sequel in cinema history. This time, Batman faced his arch-nemesis The Joker, played spectacularly by the late Heath Ledger. During the course of the film, Bruce Wayne begins to realise that although Batman was supposed to be a symbol of hope, all he has succeeded in doing so far is make things worse, and by the end of the film decides to exile himself from Gotham in a desperate bid to protect the reputation of the one man he thought could teach Gotham that Batman wasn’t needed any more, Harvey Dent.

The film broke box office records all over the world and was received even better than the first movie.

So here we are, four years later in 2012. Christopher Nolan’s film-making chops find themselves under even greater scrutiny this time around – we’ve all been waiting for this epic conclusion since we saw Batman ride away into the light on the Batpod, but has he delivered?

“Nobody cared who I was until I put on the mask”

The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR from here on in) opens with an introduction to the film’s primary antagonist, Bane. Heavily inspired by the Bane from the Batman comics, and portrayed by Tom Hardy (one of Nolan’s current favourites, having been in Inception) Bane is a monster of a man, very heavy set and with an intimidating presence to him – helped in part by the grotesque mask he wears at all times, that covers his mouth.

At first I wasn’t sure what to make of him. Bane’s voice, which has been processed heavily to make it sound like it’s coming through the mask, takes a little getting used to. With a slightly aristocratic and effeminate accent, it’s not quite what you expect to hear from such a brutal looking character. On reflection, this only serves to make him more intimidating.

His voice is un-nerving, cold and calculated, but Hardy does allow some emotion to leak through, most notably during a scene set at an American football match, where a young boy gives a stirring solo rendition of the Star Spangled Banner to the crowd. Bane, listening from the shadows, says “That’s a lovely, lovely voice!” A rather unexpected line, but the emotion is there to hear, and makes you wonder whether Bane is a monster, or a good man that just happens to have a screwed-up view of the world (which would make for an interesting parallel with our protagonist, Bruce Wayne.)

During the course of the film, Bane shows why he is more than a match for Batman, and why he is such a threat to Gotham. The stakes are higher here than they’ve ever been before.

“Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”

Meanwhile, the Batman has retired. 8 years have passed since Commissioner Gordon (played again by Gary Oldman) lied to the City about the circumstances of Harvey Dent’s death. Batman is on the run from the police, who (with the new powers afforded to them by the Dent Act, brought in after his death) have eradicated organised crime in Gotham.

No longer needed as Batman, Bruce Wayne has also become a recluse. The people of the city trade stories about him, spreading rumours of facial disfigurements and other afflictions. After all, there must be something seriously wrong to stop billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne from appearing in public.

Christian Bale returns as Bruce Wayne (and Batman, of course) and gives another great turn as the man enveloped by anger and psychoses. Bale reportedly lost weight for this film, to show Bruce as a frail and unfit shell of his former self. It shows, nowhere near as much as his role in The Machinist, but it’s enough.

His performance is hampered only slightly by a rather ridiculous scene later in the film that brings back memories of the often-mocked interrogation scene from The Dark Knight, where Bale’s Batman voice screams “WHERE ARE THEY?! WHERE ARE THEY?!” almost unintelligibly.

Never before has there been a more vocal Batman on film, though. During Batman’s fights with Bane, you feel every punch and every kick, as the masked men howl with all of their pain and strength, delivering blow after blow.

“A girl’s gotta eat.”

Bruce is content to live as a recluse until he catches a burglar stealing his mother’s pearl necklace from his safe. The burglar, Selina Kyle (played by the delectable Anne Hathaway) warns him that a storm is coming, and he realises that Gotham needs him again.

Many were sceptical of Nolan’s decision to cast Hathaway in the role of Selina Kyle (or Catwoman, as she’s better known – despite never being referred to by this name in the film) but everybody said much the same about his casting of Heath Ledger as The Joker.

I’m pleased to say that Hathaway is great in the film. Despite the sceptics, she is entirely believable as a master thief, and is quite capable of holding her own against her enemies in the movie. The chemistry between Bruce and Selina is there for all to see, and she adds some colour to the film (quite literally in fact, with her bright-red lipstick)

“Endure, Master Wayne.”

Sir Michael Caine returns as Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family’s loyal butler and Bruce’s father-figure, confidante and aide.

While having an admittedly smaller role in TDKR in comparison to the previous two films, Caine nevertheless knocks it out of the park with his performance, as Alfred comes to realise that he’s helped to turn Bruce into the man that he’s become and clearly regrets it.

With a number of very emotionally-charged scenes in the film, a lesser actor may have been tempted to play it larger than life, but Caine’s somewhat restrained acting helps sell in the emotion of the film and brings home just how screwed up things have become.

And the others

There are a plethora of other characters in the film – in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the writers may have gone a bit overboard and introduced a few too many. They do make the film a little bit harder to follow, and each character does suffer from a lack of development as the film goes on.

Nevertheless, honourable mentions should go to Joseph Gordon-Levitt for his portrayal of GCPD cop John Blake, a man with the same moral standing as both Bruce and the Commissioner. He is excellent in all of his scenes, and it really is a shame that this is the final film in the series, I’d have loved to have seen him with a meatier role.

Similarly, Marion Cotillard also does well with her role as Miranda Tate, one of Bruce’s business partners and love interest. She has limited screen time but plays her scenes out beautifully, especially towards the end of the film when the stakes are at their highest.

Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox, the CEO of Wayne Enterprises and the man responsible for Batman’s toolshed. Again, he has limited screen time but, well – it’s Morgan Freeman. I don’t think he’s ever put in a bad performance, ever.

So, what about the film in general, then?

So far, this has been a lot of words about the characters and actors and not much about the film itself.

Well, at 165 minutes long, this is certainly the longest Batman film to date and probably one of the longest films I’ve ever sat through. In all honesty, the film could have been shorter. The pacing seems a little off at times.

Unlike The Dark Knight, which was relentless, with action set piece after action set piece, TDKR is a slower film, in tone it’s much closer to Batman Begins. As a result, it suffers a bit – some scenes seem to drag out for just a little bit too long – not dramatically so, I certainly didn’t feel restless while watching the story unfold, but there were certainly parts that could have been trimmed a bit.

Cinematically, the film is outstanding. From the opening shots right through to the end everything is shot brilliantly, as you’d expect from Christopher Nolan. In particular, the fight scenes between Batman and Bane are excellent, with none of the “Shakycam” that tends to plague modern movies and makes it harder to see what’s going on. You can see every little detail during the fights, and their battle in the sewer is one of the best movie fights I have ever seen.

The plot of the film initially seemed confusing, but on reflection seems to make more sense the more I think about it. There are a few bits that don’t quite make any sense, and there are a couple of elements that are mentioned and then are seemingly forgotten about, but nothing too major. On the whole, it stacks up well – my only criticism would be that in this film the threat is almost too great, which obviously ties in nicely to the previous film’s theme of escalation, but by the time the third act of the film began I was genuinely wondering how Batman was going to fix everything. This isn’t a bad thing, of course, but it does mean that as it all comes relatively late in the film, the resolution felt slightly rushed and not as tense as it could have been.

This lack of tension, combined with the pacing issues are really the only thing that lets the film down. The Dark Knight was very nearly as long as this film, but (other than the scenes on the boats at the end) was generally well-paced, and with the constant action almost exhausting.

Bane was a definite highlight, but was a weaker villain (thematically) to the Joker of the previous film. With Ledger’s Joker, I had a real sense of dread every time he appeared – he was a man with no rules, nothing to live for and nothing to die for. He believed in only one thing, chaos. Bane seems almost pedestrian in comparison, with everything running to a very well orchestrated plan.

One of the themes that I really liked about the film (and it carries on from the themes of Begins and TDK) is that by the end of TDKR, Bruce Wayne has arguably achieved nothing. His original goal of using Batman to stamp out crime is, and always was, a pipe dream. That he (and the other characters, notably Alfred) slowly realises this over the course of the trilogy is great.

True, he has prevented Gotham from being torn apart by the League of Shadows and by the Joker, but crime will always be a part of life in the big city regardless of who’s running around on rooftops or who’s in charge. TDKR bashes this around your head repeatedly, and it’s great.

Oh, and I mustn’t forget to mention the soundtrack. Hans Zimmer’s work (along with James Newton Howard) on the Batman Begins and The Dark Knight soundtracks is unforgettable, and is a permanent fixture on my iPod playlists. This time around, Zimmer takes a stab at it without Howard’s help, and certainly doesn’t disappoint. It brings back some of the musical cues from the Begins soundtrack and weaves them together brilliantly. My only criticism, and this is not so much a problem with the soundtrack itself, is how it’s used in the film – in some scenes, the music is overbearing and it can make it very hard to understand what’s being said (especially with Batman and Bane, who both have somewhat exaggerated voices)

That said, there are some parts of the film where the soundtrack abruptly silences, and these scenes work marvellously too, building up anticipation for what’s coming next.

TL;DR

My, my, this really was a lot to read. My apologies.

In short, the film is a truly epic conclusion to the Dark Knight Trilogy. It’s not quite as good as The Dark Knight, almost entirely down to some dodgy pacing (which ironically, could also be said about this review) but it would have been a tall order to match it anyway.

The film is definitely worth seeing (and on the big screen too) though, so go while you still can.

Rating: 4/5