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,
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