Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhall
I was keen to see Christopher Nolan's second Batman movie, as I really
enjoyed Batman Begins
back in 2005. It was a darker, more intelligent take on the story of Gotham's caped crusader, and The Dark Knight picks up both story and tone where the last one left off - quite literally, as an early sequence features Cillian Murphy briefly reprising his role of The Scarecrow from the first film.
But as I'm sure you're already aware, this film isn't about The Scarecrow, it's about The Joker, and that character comes with far, far more baggage than Cillian Murphy had to contend with. When I was a kid way back in the 1960s, Cesar Romero epitomised The Joker. This was the guy who played the casino owner in the original version of Ocean's Eleven, who was more than capable of holding his own against the likes of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Memorably, he refused to shave off his trademark moustache while he played the role in the Adam West TV series; seeing someone with heavy, white clown makeup painted over his facial hair was an unusual sight back then and he really got my attention. The guy was weird. For me, the only bat-villain who surpassed him was Frank Gorshin's Riddler - but that's another story. If you grew up in the late 80s, the Joker was Jack Nicholson - a pop-art monstrosity labouring under layers of latex with a prosthetic grin that looked excruciatingly painful. Batman's creator Bob Kane suggested Nicholson for the role, and under Tim Burton's direction (albeit heavily influenced by Frank Miller's epic graphic novels, Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns) the Joker became much less of a figure of fun. When Nicholson's Joker appeared, people in Gotham started dying. Partly this was a reaction to the camp goofiness of the sixties TV show, but once the DC comics Batman had become dark and brooding it was only a matter of time before the movies followed suit - at least before they disappeared in a ludicrous set of bombastic parodies with an obsession for fluorescent paint and neon lights, anyway. Fast forward to the present day: for the present generation of comics aficionados, The Joker will be the late Heath Ledger. How does he measure up? Is all the talk of a posthumous Academy Award justified?
From the outset, particularly the "magic trick" he performs when meeting with Gotham's gangland bosses for the first time, it becomes apparent that this Joker has moved on a lot from the slightly camp, psychedelic inventions we've seen on celluloid so far. This Joker is a psycho, through and through. The green fright wig has gone, and the makeup is distorted, shambling, clumsy, looking like he's run through a car wash once too often. When you think you have the measure of Ledger's character from the furtive creepiness, all licking lips and sidelong glances, he suddenly explodes in a fit of bellowing rage. He is, frankly, terrifying. The 12A certificate the film was awarded in the UK is generously low, I think. Take a six-year-old to see this film and you'll scare the crap out of them; this is not a film for kids.
There's no backstory for The Joker's character that we can hang on to, either - or rather there are too many back stories: with each explanation, each appearance, this Joker invents himself anew. It's a lovely dramatic motif to unsettle the audience, and Ledger uses the idea to great advantage. This Joker is straight out of Frank Miller's comics. He's the villain who discovers that absolutely the most enjoyable thing in life is winding up Batman. Where Batman is staid, the Joker kicks back; where Batman believes in rules, the Joker has absolutely no hesitation in breaking them. By the end of the movie we see Batman and The Joker become polar opposites, each needing the other to justify his existence. This is the great insight that Frank Miller had in writing his graphic novels, and I'm very pleased to see the concept explored here.
Indeed, the problem for any comic book writer (or movie director) is that it's the villains who provide the fun. They're the ones who draw the audience in to the story. Watching someone who is utterly amoral is more fascinating than spending a couple of hours driving round Gotham with an overgrown boy scout. Bale has very little to work with, even if his suit now allows him to turn his head; Ledger, on the other hand, has an almost unlimited palette of expression to choose from and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Predictably or not, it's fair to say that this is Ledger's film, rather than Bale's. Batman is secondary to most of the action going on, and to be honest this time round he's rather a disappointment. Affecting a ludicrous, guttural voice each time he dons the mask, he seems to have lost his edge. Batman can't hold our interest when he's in competition with such shiny, glittering characters as we get in this movie. This might have been lessened by examining more of Bruce Wayne's frustration as The Joker runs rings around him.
The destruction of the Batmobile is a significant metaphor, when you think about it. The traditional bat gadgets are of little use whan the fight is being conducted against someone who places little value on his own life or the lives of others. A batarang or a bat boat won't help against someone who is devoted to blowing stuff up in the old-school style. The parallels with America's War On Terror are pretty obvious, but what I found particularly subversive about the plot was the fact that that the only successful deployment of technology that Batman makes is one which enables him to spy on absolutely every aspect of the lives of every single one of Gotham's citizens. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is quite rightly horrified at the system Bruce Wayne creates, but can you think of any government that wouldn't leap at the chance to have access to that level of surveillance?
And the Joker's main point is also appropriate to the WOT: under sufficient pressure, equality, personal liberty and altruism go out of the window. The finest force for good in Gotham can be reduced to an evil, amoral maniac. I was expecting the film to lay on the message in a pretty heavy-handed fashion, and it veers dangerously close to doing so. Despite the fact that it contains a great performance by Tiny Lister, I felt that the whole sequence with the two ferryboats laboured the point just a little too much and it could have been cut from the film entirely without the plot development suffering too much. And I'm a cynic - in real life, I suspect that the passengers on those boats wouldn't have been as noble as they are in the film. I also found it very interesting that the principal triumph that Gotham achieves against the Joker has nothing whatsoever to do with Batman's actions.
In The Dark Knight, poor old District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is the Joker's lab rat. He's a psychological test bed for The Joker's theory taken to its gruesome conclusion. Yet his story seems oddly stilted, almost neglected, because it has to take a back seat to The Joker himself. I wanted to see more of Dent before the fall, wanted to see him established as a character far more, and after the appearance of Two-Face I wanted to see more of what he'd become. Instead, he is rather unceremoniously killed off before the final credits roll, which felt like a huge mis-step. Is that all he gets? It seemed very wrong.
To sum up, Ledger has taken the Joker to a new place, and in doing so has eclipsed both Romero and Nicholson. It's an outstanding performance and it's a shame that Ledger's death will inevitably warp every appraisal of what he's done. It's also a great shame that we won't get to see where the character went next. My main complaint with the film is that it needed to lose an awful lot of weight. It's too long, tries to handle too much action, and wastes a lot of the opportunities that could have been covered far better by splitting the stories into two. I nearly took another star off this review for that, but in the end I decided that for all its flaws, it is such an enjoyable and thought-provoking piece of cinema that I couldn't be that cruel.
Chris's rating: Four Stars