Screen Fever Score: 10/10
A genre-busting script, breathtaking visuals and across the board top-drawer performances, composed into a spectacular whole by the best British film director working today.
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. So speaks DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham City’s great white hope for change, early on in The Dark Knight. While his statement is proved true for more than one character by the time this brilliant film reaches its gut-wrenching conclusion, it seems that director Christopher Nolan can cheat his own film’s logic; with The Dark Knight he emerges as the moviemaking hero of 2008. As the film smashes box office records worldwide, and industry analysts begin to whisper about it being a possible challenger to Titanic’s unshakeable (until now?) position as the highest-grossing film of all time, Nolan can rest in the knowledge of a greater achievement; he’s brought uncompromisingly intelligent film-making into the realm of the big dumb summer blockbuster, and the crowds love it.
From the moment the film opens it’s clear that Batman Begins was a jumping off point, but with The Dark Knight Nolan is flying. Literally, as breath-taking IMAX-filmed aerial shots of Gotham city roll out an eye-popping canvas, as if he is telling us to prepare for an epic. And with a multi-layered story that creates one tension-point after another, encompassing moral quandaries as removed from simple black and white sermonising as is imaginable, an epic is exactly what he delivers. As has been noted elsewhere, The Dark Knight has more in common with brooding crime sagas like Michael Mann’s Heat than any previous comic-book film, but it’s a mood that fits this scenario perfectly, and allows the film to travel to unprecedented levels of intensity. At the centre of this maelstrom is Christian Bale, the support to Nolan’s arm without whom this whole operation would fail. As the film progresses and the line of separation between brooding Batman and formerly fun-loving Bruce Wayne is all but erased, Bale makes every scene count and proves himself to be the definitive Batman.
But as Batman Begins clearly signposted, this film was always going to centre on one iconic villain. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker has already been heaped with praise, and I can do nothing but add my voice to the throng; he so inhabits this reinvented character that it is often difficult to believe this is the same Ledger we have seen in previous films. What makes the performance so good is that Ledger and Nolan have fearlessly reshaped the Joker character as we know him, coming up with an interpretation that is more purely terrifying than any we have previously seen, but is still unmistakeably The Joker. It absolutely confirms the promise that Ledger had shown in recent roles, that he was becoming one of the most interesting actors of his generation, and only increases the sadness of his passing.
In any other film a performance of such intensity would surely lay waste to the rest of the cast’s chances of recognition, but nothing could be further from the truth in the case of The Dark Knight. There are seven names above the title on this movie’s poster, and each one of them well and truly earns their top billing. This is partly thanks to the brilliantly written and structured script, which balances enough plot-lines to fill three movies but still does justice to each significant character, with even potential ‘filler’ characters Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred (Michael Caine) given key scenes that are not only integral to the plot but equally serve to flesh out their characters in the brief screen time they occupy.
Working from this great foundation, each cast member lifts their game and brings their best, but while Ledger will take the lion’s share of column-inches, it is actually Aaron Eckhart who gives the best performance in the film. Audiences leaving the cinema will marvel at the screen-burning presence of The Joker, but it’s Dent’s story that will haunt them long after the credits have rolled. Eckhart’s contribution cannot be overstated in this; just as Dent wins Bruce Wayne’s admiration, so Eckhart wins the audience’s, and when his character’s journey turns dark, all we can do is look on in wrapt devastation. Conversely, the handling of Dent’s storyline reveals one of the few flaws in the film, as a key twist is rushed and doesn’t quite convince. The reason why this hiccup doesn’t hurt the film more is because of the quality of Eckhart’s performance; he keeps the audience tied to the story across this slight filmmaking fumble.
Beyond the A-grade acting, the film is a stunning achievement in every aspect of its construction and execution; there is no weak link in this creative team. From the impeccably structured script through the amazing IMAX cinematography to the dark and thunderous score, The Dark Knight is a piece of ensemble (in the furthest-reaching sense of the word) filmmaking on a par with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, in that every department and player has grasped the vision and fully contributed, with exemplary results.
This kind of second-to-none teamwork doesn’t just happen; it requires a director of rare ability, and The Dark Knight confirms Christopher Nolan as one of the greatest living directors of spectacular cinema. While it has been clear since he first caught mainstream attention with Memento that his is a singular directorial vision, no-one would have predicted that just eight years on he would not only be confidently spearheading the biggest comic-book movie franchise of the 21st century, but simultaneously reshaping the genre and breaking new ground in just how big, literally, narrative cinema can be. The box office success of The Dark Knight will give him the clout to now do whatever he wants and, judging by his track record, I can think of no other director working today more capable of taking that kind of freedom and using it to produce even better things.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan and Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
UK release: 24 July