Sensational: Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises.
Sensational: Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises.
Vulnerable: Christian Bale in Dark Knight guise.
Vulnerable: Christian Bale in Dark Knight guise.

The real-world threats of terrorism, political anarchy and economic instability make deep incursions into the cinematic comic book domain in The Dark Knight Rises. Big-time Hollywood film-making at its most massively accomplished, this last instalment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy makes everything in the rival Marvel universe look silly and childish.

The director daringly pushes the credibility of a Gotham City besieged by nuclear-armed revolutionaries to such an extent that it momentarily seems absurd that a guy in a costume who refuses to kill people could conceivably show up to save the day. This is especially true since Nolan has gone so far to unmask and debilitate such a figure. But he gets away with it and everything here is lucid, to the point and on the mark, richly filling out every moment of the 164-minute running time.

In a curtain-raiser James Bond would kill for, a CIA aircraft transporting terrorists is sensationally hijacked in midair by Bane (Tom Hardy), an intimidating hulk whose nose and mouth are encumbered by a grill-like metal mask that gives his voice an artificial quality not unlike that of Darth Vader.

Although it’s only been four years since the last Batman film, eight years of dramatic time have elapsed since the climactic events depicted in The Dark Knight Rises. Batman and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) have been in simultaneous seclusion, much to the consternation of loyal valet Alfred (Michael Caine), who, upbraiding his boss for inaction, accuses him of “just waiting for things to get bad again”. They do, in a hurry. But in the interim, Gotham has scarcely missed him, as he’s publicly blamed for the death of District Attorney Harvey Dent and hasn’t needed him anyway since organised crime has practically disappeared.

Bruce begins being dragged back into the limelight by slinky Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a spirited cat burglar who is cannily threaded into the tale as an alluring gadfly.

Commandeering the city’s sewers with his fellow mercenaries, Bane begins his onslaught, first with an attempted kidnapping of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), then with a brazen attack on the Stock Exchange, which has the double effect of luring Batman out of hiding and bankrupting Bruce Wayne. The latter catastrophe forces him to ask wealthy, amorously inclined board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) to assume control of his company to squeeze out Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), who’s in cahoots with Bane.

Nolan has thus boldly rooted his film in what are arguably the two big worries of the age, terrorism and economic collapse, the result of which can only be chaos. So when practically the entire Gotham police force is lured underground to try to flush out Bane, the latter has the lawmen just where he wants them. And the fact that Gotham City has, for the first time, realistically used New York City for most of its urban locations merely adds to the topical resonance of Bane’s brilliantly engineered plot, in which he eventually takes the population of Manhattan hostage. Nolan has always been a very serious, even remorseless film-maker, and never more so than he is here.

Inducing Selina to take him to Bane, Batman gets more than he bargained for; physically, he’s no match for the mountainously muscled warrior, who sends the legendary crime fighter off to a hell-hole of a prison, with the parting promise of reducing Gotham to ashes. Seemingly located in the Middle East, the dungeon resembles a huge well and has been escaped from only once, by none other than Bane, who is said to have been born there and got out as a child.

While Bruce Wayne languishes in the pit rebuilding his strength, Bane spectacularly reverses the social order of Gotham City: 1 000 dangerous criminals are released from prison, the rich are tossed out of their homes, the remaining police hide out like rats underground, and a “people’s court” (presided over by Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow) dispenses death sentences willy-nilly. With most bridges and tunnels destroyed, no one can leave the island, which is threatened by a fusion device.

The opening skyjacking, the Stock Exchange mêlée and especially the multiple explosions that bring the city to its knees are fresh and brilliantly rendered, as are all the other effects.

The film reportedly cost $250 million, but it would be easy to believe that the figure was quite a bit more, so elaborate is everything about the production.

But the fact that all the money has been put to the use of making the severe dramatic events feel so realistic ratchets up the suspense and pervasive feeling of unease. One knows going in that this film will mark the end of Batman, at least for now and as rendered by Bale and Nolan, but for the first time there is the sense that it could also really be the end for Batman.

Needing to portray both his characters as vulnerable, Bale is at his series best in this film. At times in the past his voice seemed too artificially deepened and transformed; there’s a bit of that here, but far less, and, as Bruce becomes impoverished and Batman incapacitated, the actor’s nuances increase. Caine has a couple of surprisingly emotional scenes to play and handles them with lovely restraint, while other returnees Oldman and Morgan Freeman deliver as expected.

Bane is a fearsome figure, fascinating in his physicality and blithely confident approach to amoral anarchy. Hathaway invests her catlike woman with verve and impudence, while Cotillard is a warm and welcome addition to this often forbidding world.

As before, the production values are opulent and sensational. Despite the advanced technology deployed to make The Dark Knight Rises everything it is, Nolan remains defiantly old school when it comes to his film-making aesthetic, an approach indicated in at the end of the final credits: “This motion picture was shot and finished on film.” – Hollywood Reporter