Heart of dark­ness

Heath Ledger’s Joker is at the cen­tre of the dark­est Bat­man film yet, writes Michael Dwyer THE DARK KNIGHT Di­rected by Christo­pher Nolan. Star­ring Chris­tian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Old­man, Aaron Eck­hart, Morgan Free­man, Mag­gie Gyl­len­haal, Michael Caine,

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

YES, THERE is some­thing mor­bid about the me­dia and pub­lic in­ter­est in Christo­pher Nolan’s sec­ond Bat­man pic­ture ever since Heath Ledger died six months ago af­ter an ac­ci­den­tal over­dose of pre­scrip­tion drugs.

That fas­ci­na­tion, and the cu­rios­ity fu­elling it, rose to fever pitch when the movie opened in the US last week­end, shat­ter­ing box-of­fice records. The cov­er­age re­volved around Ledger’s por­trayal of the Joker, rel­e­gat­ing the rest of the movie’s strong cast to the pe­riph­ery.

How­ever voyeuris­tic and ghoul­ish that may seem, it is en­tirely un­der­stand­able on see­ing The Dark Knight. Ledger’s grand­stand­ing per­for­mance is so driven and full of wild en­ergy that it be­comes hyp­notic, com­mand­ing the screen. For­get about Jack Ni­chol­son’s flam­boy­antly camp rou­tine as the Joker in Tim Bur­ton’s 1989 Bat­man. It was as un­threat­en­ing as Ledger’s Joker is men­ac­ing and sin­is­ter.

Ledger’s per­for­mance is man­nered, but in the most in­trigu­ing of ways, as a sadist with el­e­ments of masochism, and a man so amoral that he can de­vise the most di­a­bol­i­cal schemes, re­gard­less of the hu­man con­se­quences. And then, as we get to know the Joker, the film gets to the root of his evil, re­vealed in a back­story of a hor­rific child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence that il­lus­trates how he ac­quired the “smile” that be­came his crim­i­nal trade­mark.

Yet Ledger’s out­sized but per­fectly judged por­trayal never threat­ens to un­bal­ance The Dark Knight. It is en­tirely con­sis­tent with a film that lives up to its ti­tle as by far the dark­est and edgi­est of all the Bat­man movies to date.

The con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance of the drama is ev­i­dent, from the poster shot of a blaz­ing sky­scraper, which in­evitably in­vokes 9/11 im­agery, and em­pha­sised in the cli­mate of fear the Joker cre­ates to desta­bilise Gotham City and to trig­ger Bat­man’s un­mask­ing.

One of the most ar­rest­ing se­quences draws on a re­cur­ring theme from post-9/11 movies – our hu­man des­per­a­tion for self-preser­va­tion. When the wil­fully an­ar­chic Joker threat­ens to blow up a hospi­tal if a TV show guest is not killed within 60 min­utes, peo­ple take to the streets and to the TV stu­dio, in­tent on mur­der­ing him.

Light re­lief is min­i­mal in The Dark Knight, and then only through brief flashes of the glam­orous off-duty lifestyle en­joyed by Bat­man’s highly sexed al­ter ego, bil­lion­aire bach­e­lor Bruce Wayne, and his ban­ter with his but­ler, Al­fred (Michael Caine). Fit­ting his dual roles like snugly match­ing gloves, Chris­tian Bale is amus­ingly ur­bane play­ing the play­boy, while in­vest­ing his caped cru­sader with grav­i­tas, grit and de­ter­mi­na­tion.

We al­ready know from the ex­pos­i­tory Bat­man Be­gins how Wayne, like the Joker, was shaped by a trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence in his own child­hood.

In the adroitly formed screen­play for The Dark Knight – writ­ten by di­rec­tor Nolan and his brother Jonathan – his Bat­man is chal­lenged with a suc­ces­sion of moral quan­daries that cause him to ques­tion his role.

There are sig­nif­i­cant im­pli­ca­tions, too, for Lieut Jim Gor­don as he is pro­moted to po­lice com­mis­sioner, and the viewer’s em­pa­thy is stoked by Gary Old­man’s un­der­stated, un­ex­pect­edly af­fect­ing work in what tra­di­tion­ally has been treated as a throw­away role.

Se­ries new­comer Aaron Eck­hart is also ideally cast as the am­bi­tious new dis­trict at­tor­ney Har­vey Dent, who faces an even more un­cer­tain fu­ture, so to speak.

This pow­er­house pic­ture gains in ur­gency from Lee Smith’s dy­namic edit­ing and from Hans Zim­mer and James New­ton Howard’s grace­ful, swelling score. Un­der Nolan’s richly imag­i­na­tive and boldly as­sured di­rec­tion, The Dark Knight gets down to busi­ness with a ro­bust open­ing heist se­quence and sus­tains its adren­a­line-pump­ing rhythm all the way to a ter­rific finale.

Chris­tian Bale as the caped cru­sader

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