WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: Gotham’s criminal bosses feel the heat from the city’s notorious vigilante, the Batman, and the zeal of District Attorney Harvey Dent. However, the crazed antics of a robber/terrorist known only as ‘The Joker’ give the city a host of new problems and Batman more than one reason to hunt him down.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins had many things – thoughtful, reasoned characterisation, an epic feel, brilliant set-pieces – but it lacked the one thing that made Tim Burton’s Batman so memorable: The Joker. The director remedies this for his sequel, but any thoughts of a wacky villain along the lines of Jack Nicholson’s loon are quickly dispelled.
As The Dark Knight begins, the fight against crime in Gotham City is gaining momentum; for not only is Bruce Wayne’s Batman (Christian Bale) such an iconic figure that he attracts impersonators, but new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is also up for challenging the mob families, together with colleague, partner and Bruce’s friend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Were these twin threats not enough, a maverick criminal known only as ‘The Joker’ (Heath Ledger) is also stealing mob money; and when Chinese businessman Lau (Chin Han) fails – thanks to Batman – to safely hide the money away in Hong Kong, The Joker presents the remaining gangsters with a proposition: he will kill Batman for half of the money. The Joker’s unpredictable and violent ways upset the other criminals but they are ultimately left with little choice; and as citizens’ lives are threatened, Bruce Wayne appears to be left with no choice but to reveal himself as the caped crusader – except Harvey beats him to it, setting off a chain of events that will test the resolve of Batman and Lieutenant – now Commissioner – Gordon (Gary Oldman) to the limit.
This is but a brief summation of the plot, which (like Batman Begins) is thoroughly thought out, punctuated with stunts, vehicles and huge action sequences at satisfying intervals, and imbued with themes that resonate throughout the film, such as ‘you can die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain’ or ‘some people just want to see the world burn.’ The over-riding theme in The Dark Knight is that of order versus chaos, and in a Gotham where both vigilantes like Batman and the criminal fraternity operate under a code of sorts, Heath Ledger’s anarchic, psychopathic Joker creates mayhem and a genuinely uneasy atmosphere.
Reams have already been written about Ledger’s (sadly posthumous) Oscar-winning turn, but it is worth reiterating exactly how impressive a performance it is: savage yet darkly humorous (especially in a nurse’s uniform), there is almost no actor behind The Joker’s repulsive make-up; he is terrific and terrifying, and his unpredictable energy makes all the slower, talky sections of the film come alive. It is a great credit to Christian Bale that he has the steel to hold his own in Ledger’s company as both Wayne and The Bat, even if his gruff Bat-voice is over-the-top; furthermore, both Eckhart and the cast of returning players (Oldman, Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox) all do a grand job in their small but pivotal roles.
Then there’s Maggie Gyllenhaal. I’ve absolutely no wish to be personal (and I realise these things are subjective), so I’ll phrase myself carefully: Katie Holmes brought a fresh-faced sweetness to the role of Rachel in Batman Begins, and whilst she may have looked too young to be prosecuting toughened criminals, she seemed to be a good match for Bale’s Bruce Wayne. Gyllenhaal brings a much harder and probably more convincing edge to the role, but is a less attractive character as a result. I’m not commenting on Maggie herself, you understand, but I did raise an eyebrow at The Joker’s ‘Hello beautiful’, and her lack of vulnerability made Rachel’s demise less tragic than it might have been with Holmes still in the role.
That is a really minor criticism of the film, but there is a more substantial one. The film works hard to create interesting moral conundrums and cement Batman’s position in Gotham City as a good bad guy (or vice versa), whilst providing an outright villain in The Joker and a more ambiguous character in Two-Face, and a barrel-load of exciting chases, explosions, fights and so on. Which is fine – and The Dark Knight is certainly more fun than Batman Begins – but at two and a half hours the film is simply too long.
When I first saw the film I thought the Hong Kong sequence was unnecessary, but I enjoyed it the second time round, thinking the late transformation of Harvey Dent did more to overload the plot. The first climax, i.e. the rescue of hostages and ferry passengers, then battling The Joker, is certainly more thrilling and less manipulative than the stand-off between Batman and Two-Face, holding a gun to Gordon’s cute little kid.
In the cinema the plot strands just about hold the attention, but losing either Lau or limiting Harvey’s role in the film would have made a great film that little bit tighter still. Incidentally, on the subject of the (first) climax, it would be remiss of me not to complain about the far-fetched use of mobile phone technology that enables Lucius and Batman to see a virtual Sonar ‘view’ of Gotham, having moaned about something similar (and not as outlandish) in Eagle Eye.
The Dark Knight is beautifully filmed and for the most part wonderfully acted, with atmosphere, intelligence and deep investment in the characters which almost overrides niggling complaints that it takes itself too seriously for a comic book adaptation. If you haven’t seen it and haven’t a sworn aversion to doing so, it’s a film you must watch and not just for Ledger’s timeless performance. Though when you find yourself shifting your seating position, or sneaking an impatient look at your watch, don’t forget that I told you so.