Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Dark Knight

2008, US, directed by Christopher Nolan

Or In Which It Is Shewn That a Summer Blockbuster Is Not The Ideal Vehicle For Coherent Political Commentary. It's clear that Christopher Nolan aspires to something more than the average big-budget action flick, and that Batman and the cinematic universe in which he exists could be read as a partial analogy for the current US administration and, but it's not an analogy that hangs together all that well, with the political subtext ultimately subordinate to the need to ratchet up the thrills (I wonder to what extent I was influenced by David Bordwell's comments, which I read a few days before I saw the film; he makes a pretty good case for deliberately muddled movie politics). Nolan's directorial style also distracts from any subtler point he might be trying to make: his camera spins around in dizzying fashion, whether we're circling a tall building in Hong Kong or following the Joker as he swings wildly around the terrorised crowd at a party, and he has a tendency to underline every point in the action with loud, sometimes portentous music.

I won't deny that the film is good big-screen entertainment, best enjoyed with a crowd, but as soon as the closing credits roll, the seams start to come undone. Given that we're talking abut flying superheroes, realism is not the primary concern (though I did like the way the first film made some attempt to ground things in our own world), but even so the
timeline for some of the events seems utterly implausible: there's simply too much going on at any one time. While there are some striking visual images - that circling camera on the rooftops is quite impressive on the big screen, and there's a brilliant sequence where the lights shut down on Batman's lair - too many of the action scenes aren't sufficiently coherent: in one big chase scene, we're supposed to be concerned about the Joker's approach, but we never have the sense that he's actually in the same physical space so the menace is undercut.

Then there is the obligatory word about Heath Ledger's performance as said Joker. While his work is a fine bit of scene-chewing acting, all manic energy and wild mannerisms, it's also a very showy bit of work - presumably at the director's bidding - that seems to me far from his finest hour. I'd much rather remember him for his eye-catching work in the otherwise unappealing Monster's Ball or his exceptionally controlled performance in Brokeback Mountain. Or perhaps I'd best like to remember him as a high school kid in 10 Things I Hate About You, where he looks just like what he was: a kid off the plane from Australia who's just won the Hollywood casting lottery and is enjoying every second of the ride.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States