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Retrospective Film Review: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises

Friday 07 November 2014

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Maybe it’s with the entitled weight of cathartic finality that the final act in Christopher Nolan’s triptych, in many ways the most inelegant, has the effect of being the easiest of the three films to overlook its narrative and character-shading shortcomings, of which have no doubt, there are a great many.

The re-imaging of the Dark Knight story that began with Batman Begins in 2005 arrived with such gloomy solemnity you could almost hear the collective consciousness tut-tutting at yet another ‘dark’ retelling. Yet with the story Nolan began to weave, focussing on Bruce Wayne’s battle with inner demons, absolute morality and urban degradation, the cheerless subject matter quickly justified such portentous a tone. Batman’s self-sacrificing assumption of the murder of Harvey Dent in order to keep the spark of hope alive in disillusioned Gothamites at the end of The Dark Knight was a million miles away from the technicolor self-congratulatory fanfare of superheroes gone before. Yet as Chicago Sun-Times film critic Jim Emerson so painstakingly pointed out in a video essay analysing one of TDK‘s key sequences, there are many ways to make a film, and many ways to make a mess.

Technically, and certainly from a performance standpoint, The Dark Knight Rises is as remarkable as its predecessors. Wally Pfister continues to take black-level cinematography to ever nth-er degrees, and in one standout sequence, even reverses the palate by shooting an exhilarating action sequence set against a snowy daylight backdrop – a visually striking trick repeated from the earlier films. Similarly the principles give wonderful turns in roles that are the most underwritten of the series. More of that in a moment. It is, however, Tom Hardy as the hulking yet eloquent Bane who emerges as the film’s clearest triumph. Shot primarily from perception-distorting low angles and attired in quasi-dictorial military garb, Hardy cleverly bestows Batman’s adversary with a nonchalant swagger and a received pronunciation vocal inflection that recalls Dr. Lector and his maw-restricting mask. Whereas Heath Ledger’s Joker wielded a brutal and unpredictable wild anarchy, Bane is contemplative, poetic, refined even. The first time Wayne and Bane engage has The Bat throwing all the furious punches whilst being out-powered and out-balleted by his foe.

And this is where we come to the sticking point; narratively, The Dark Knight Rises is a mess, especially the first twenty minutes – an untidy and shoddy collection of scenes that aim for illusory disparity but succeed only in incoherence. Characters emerge from nowhere, say their piece and disappear, the screenplay is screamingly first-drafty, and there’s precious little character introduction let alone development. Arguably we have had two other previous films from which to flesh them out, but there are four here who suffer most, three of them new characters; Hathaway’s Selina Kyle, Cotillard as the mysterious Miranda Tate (both with rich and complex backstories that are criminally under-explored) Gordon-Levitt’s rookie cop Blake (whom on discovering how pivotal a role he has, will have you looking back on the film, suspecting sleight of hand but discovering merely an ill-conceived character) and most bewilderingly, Batman himself. This was to be his swan song. “The legend ends”, we were told. How then is there next to nothing in the way of reflection on Bruce Wayne’s part in all of the film’s near three-hour runtime? Even Alfred’s wise words begin to sound like a bad pastiche on his once genuinely sage advice. Only one scene, Wayne’s visit to a doctor in which, alarmingly, we’re made aware of the physical toll being the city’s protector has had on his body allows us to embrace Batman’s mortality. The sheer scale of the film is truly impressive and Hans Zimmer’s score pounds and arpeggiates in all the right places, but this time, it’s not as easy to put aside plot-holes and lazy screenwriting. The series – Nolan’s vision – has already proved it deserves better.

Much of this may seem like nit-picking and I suspect most people won’t want to feel short-changed by The Dark Knight Rises. No one wants to feel let down by emotional investment. But while the film is ambitious, audacious, literary and beautiful, it’s let down by fundamentals that should have already been in place. There’s no point having a cake decorated by a world-class pâtissier artist if the cake itself fails to rise. As the trilogy’s epilogue TDKR is as much of a ride as it was ever going to be. The tragedy is that it could have been so, so much more; a superhero movie that cemented this type of comic-book fantasy as a genre that stood up to the rigorous scrutiny of cinematic academia. But no matter. Nolan, like Batman, is retired from this saga having paid his dues. And what a thrilling ride into the night it has been.

Words: Ash Verjee