Tag Archives: Gary Oldman

A Tale of Legacy and Hope: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Film Review

Batman (Christian Bale) faces off against Bane (Tom Hardy).

What is it about Batman? A super-rich, developmentally arrested man-child dresses up as a flying mammal and goes around beating up people in even sillier costumes, and we can’t get enough of him (I kid, I kid. Mostly). Of all the so-called ‘A-list’ superheroes, Batman seems to have the most frequently acclaimed graphic novels, movies, and even video games. For many, the jewels in the bat-crown are Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which arguably legitimised the comic book film boom of the previous decade, bringing the genre to a new level of popularity and critical recognition.

This is the legacy with which Nolan and company were confronted when trying to bring the series to completion in The Dark Knight Rises, and it is, perhaps, no coincidence that themes of legacy and living up to the past are prominent in not only the character of Bruce Wayne, but in the arcs of both his enemies and his allies. Even the name of the film is, likely, a necessary acknowledgement of past success, as well as a nod to some of the original comic book stories which influenced the film, such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and, more circumspectly, Knightfall. Like in Returns, Bruce Wayne (played once again by Christian Bale) begins the story retired but dissatisfied, having never truly grown passed his need for Batman – though, thanks to his sacrifice at the end of The Dark Knight, the city of Gotham has not needed him for the past eight years.

Wayne is finally brought out of retirement by the appearance of cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married) and mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy, Inception), ignoring the warnings of his faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Caine, Inception). However, he is aided by new allies, policeman John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Inception) and Wayne Enterprises board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard, Inception), as well as old friends Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, Inception Invictus) and Comissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). In truth, the film struggles somewhat to move all these different pieces into place, resulting in a meandering, somewhat disappointing first act, but things pick up with Batman’s first fateful encounter with Bane, and it’s from here the story really begins to take off.

Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) takes the Batpod out for a spin.

A trite observation: ‘hype’ is only one letter away from ‘hope’, and The Dark Knight Rises is easily one of the most hyped-up films of the year (the only other real contenders being The Avengers and The Hobbit). I certainly went into the cinema hoping it would live up to the heights of The Dark Knight, and in that first hour, I felt doubt slowly creep in. And yet, to a certain extent, I think that was part of the point. I’m not suggesting that Christopher Nolan made an deliberately underwhelming opening in order to make a statement about the impossible expectations the industry and the audience place on these kinds of films – that would be ridiculous. But I do think that the frustrating nature of opening first act is, at least partially, a calculated gamble, as our hopes for Batman’s triumphant return are left deliberately unfulfilled.

It’s a gamble which leaves the film on an uncertain footing to start, but which pays dividends once everything begins to fall into place (which does take just a little too long to happen). The lengthy establishment of the film’s many characters helps create an emotional core for the massive scale of the spectacle which follows, and provides a reason to care about the fate of Gotham beyond the involvement of Bruce Wayne. As for Wayne himself, it’s often said that he (together with his alter ego) is the least interesting thing about the stories he appears in, with Tim Burton’s Batman Returns and The Dark Knight often cited as examples, but Rises clearly breaks with that supposed pattern by allowing him to grow beyond being simply the man behind the mask, by giving him a past that weighs down on him and a future that seems tragically out of reach.

Appropriately, for a film so concerned with legacy, the events of the previous entries in the series are central to the events of this one, with the personal and public legacies of Rachel Dawes, Harvey Dent and Ra’s al Ghul, not to mention the Batman himself, playing key roles in the motivations of many characters. As a result, Rises serves much better as a conclusion to an on-going narrative than it does as a story in its own right. This is particularly remarkable in that, even though The Dark Knight felt substantially distinct from Batman Begins, the attempt to tie them together here doesn’t feel overly strained or artificial.

Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) dwells on Harvey Dent’s legacy.

Nevertheless, there are flaws beyond the risky structure of the opening hour. While most of the large cast of characters earn their place, there are those which seem extraneous at times, most notably Deputy Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine, Full Metal Jacket), as additional the emphasis on Gotham’s police department over the ordinary citizen makes it feel as if an important perspective is missing. Furthermore, while Tom Hardy’s Bane is quite a unique screen presence as a villain, the different elements of his character don’t always cohere too well, and perhaps more light should have been shed on his motivations earlier, though the moment in which his true history is revealed was nonetheless effective.

Indeed, the ending is easily the best part of the film, something which couldn’t necessarily be said for either Batman Begins or The Dark Knight. Even based around a surprisingly overt gimmick with a prop that doesn’t look entirely convincing, the final act of The Dark Knight Rises manages to combine thrilling, if strangely old-fashioned, action sequences with the most emotional moments of the entire series. It’s a catharsis which comes not through the defeat of the villain, but the journey of the heroes. For despite the epic disaster-movie scale of the thing, it’s the characters which make it work, make the cumbersome plotting interesting, provide the stakes with meaning, and give voice to the themes.

Hope alone is not that interesting a concept artistically, no more than ‘good vs. evil’ is, really. It’s such a repeated element of these kind of stories that it’s hard to say anything new on the subject. But legacy and hope together, the burden of the past and the promise of the future, form a dichotomy right at home in the imagery and symbolism of the Batman mythos, where there are always two sides to every coin. For Bane, hope is an instrument of torture, and legacies are weapons. For Batman and his allies, legacies might sometimes be terrible weights to carry, but hope provides them with the strength to endure.

Arbitrary critic rating: 4 out of 5 mysterious symbols in the sky

Afterthoughts

  • Always good seeing Scarecrow crop up (Cillian Murphy, Inception).
  • An observation I didn’t manage to fit in above: Selina Kyle’s initial motivation is nothing less than to be free of her past, which strikes me as particularly significant in the context of the film’s themes. Also, in a typically Nolan-esque move, she is never once referred to as ‘Catwoman’.
  • I haven’t really talked about the politics of the film, mainly because Bane’s assault on the rich and powerful of Gotham owes much, much more to the depiction of the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities than it does to the Occupy movement.
  • Attached to the front of the film was a teaser for Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel. There wasn’t much to go on, though I was intrigued by what I saw, which seemed more reminiscent of Nolan’s aesthetic than Snyder’s (Nolan is serving as producer and has a story credit). Nevertheless, while trailers regularly reuse music, the choice of one of the most distinctive soundtracks from one of the most successful films of the previous decade (The Fellowship of the Ring) was overly distracting.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Film Review

Budapest, 1973. The height of the Cold War. An attempt to contact a Hungarian defector goes disastrously wrong. A British agent is shot in the back. The debacle forces out Control, the head of British intelligence, along with his most loyal officer, George Smiley. The opening credits roll.

The image of Sean Connery shedding a diving suit, revealing the perfectly pressed dinner jacket beneath, would be as alien to the world of espionage depicted in this taut opening sequence as would, well, actual aliens.[1]

The film is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a new adaptation of John le Carré’s classic thriller about the inner workings of the British intelligence service – and the hunt for the Moscow agent sitting in its very heart. A year after his forced retirement, Smiley (Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight) is recruited by the government to investigate his former colleagues at ‘the Circus': new head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones, Captain America), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth, The King’s Speech), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds, HBO’s Rome) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2009). All are under suspicion for treason – as is Smiley himself.

Rounding out the main players are John Hurt (Alien) as Control, Tom Hardy (Inception) as Ricki Tarr, a hot-blooded ‘scalphunter’ for the British intelligence service, Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes, 2009) as Jim Prideaux, and Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s Sherlock) as Peter Guillam, Smiley’s ally inside the Circus. Briefly appearing is Kathy Burke (Elizabeth) as Connie Sachs, while Smiley’s unfaithful wife Ann remains distant and anonymous (adding an undercurrent of sexual frustration to the film’s deliberate mustiness). The strength of the cast truly speaks for itself, and none of the performances disappoint the lofty expectations placed on them.[2]

Directing is Tomas Alfredson, a Swedish filmmaker best known for the critically-lauded vampire film Let the Right One In (2008). With Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Alfredson has proved himself a supremely confident director, refusing to coddle the audience. He juxtaposes shots in unsettling ways, lingering on seemingly irrelevant details, often cutting off a scene in the middle of a conversation – though some credit must surely go to Dino Jonsäter, Alfredson’s editor, who worked with him on Let the Right One In.

A sense of unease permeates the film, perfectly capturing the uncertainties of the world le Carré was describing. I felt strongly reminded of reading through the novel for the first time, several years ago, not on the superficial level of recognising characters and events, but the actual sensations inspired by le Carré’s prose. The tense sequence in which Guillam illicitly retrieves documents from the Circus for Smiley was one which has always stood out in my memory, and it was perfectly matched by this production. If a successful literary adaptation is one which evokes the spirit of the book while remaining viable as a separate work of art, then Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy qualifies for that title, with room to spare.

Arbitrary critic rating: 5 blank London nights out of 5

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[1] For the record, I love Goldfinger‘s opening. It sets the tone of the film perfectly. It’s also sublimely ridiculous.

[2] Not having seen the 1979 BBC television series starring the legendary Alec Guinness, I can’t comment on how Oldman measures up to this legacy. Nevetheless, it seemed to me Oldman (in film critic parlance) made the role his own, maintaining a quiet but palpable presence – which made his one outburst of anger (not overplayed by Oldman) all the more powerful.