Coming into work on the bus this morning, it occurred to me that the Christopher Nolan film I most wanted to watch again was Insomnia. I remember it being the least tricksy of Nolan’s films; a sharp, intelligent thriller, heavy on style and atmosphere, which seemed less concerned with the kind of ingenious puzzles and narrative twists that the director deployed in Memento, The Prestige and Inception. A remake of a Norwegian thriller, in the days before such things were fashionable, with Al Pacino as a frazzled cop investigating a murder in a small Alaskan town, a place of unrelenting perpetual light, Insomnia felt more of human film, I suppose, as we watched Pacino unravel, his senses jammed wide open, wired on the midnight sun and no sleep. It’s easier, I think, to admire Nolan’s movies for their intelligence and technical skill than for their emotional warmth. Insomnia, however, might prove to be the exception.
There is very little humanity to be found in Nolan Batfilms. How could there be? The characters in these Batfilms are psychopaths, freaks; barely human in the first place. The Dark Knight Rises opens eight years on from the events in The Dark Knight, with the Batman retired after having taken the blame for the death of District Attorney Harvey Dent; meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is living in self-imposed isolation in Wayne Manor, apparently with “eight inch long nails, peeing into Mason jars”, a nice allusion to Howard Hughes. But as one astute observer comments, Wayne is simply “waiting for something bad to happen” – which it surely does, a “moment of crisis” presents itself in the shape of Bane, a concrete slab of a man, intent on destroying Gotham City and the Batman, too.
What humanity there is comes from Michael Caine’s Alfred and Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon, men very much without capes, who provide the film with a moral compass and incidentally, deliver the best performances here. These are character actors at the top of the game, unshowily going about their business supporting the story. Incidentally, Gary Oldman in this film looks like David Bowie’s Nikolai Tesla in The Prestige. Christian Bale, meanwhile, is purse-lipped and grimly intense as usual; though here at least he is allowed to explore Wayne’s vulnerabilities with fresh focus. Tom Hardy’s Bane is an intriguing adversary for the Batman. Not a marquee name like the Joker, instead he serves as a very physical opponent for the Batman: Hardy, never afraid to work out should a role demand it, is of extraordinary bulk here. Never mind that you can’t hear most of what he says, thanks to a mask that obscures half his face; his fists are fine communicators. Among the other newcomers, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a wiry, dogged policeman with strong professional ethics, Anne Hathaway is a witty Selina Kyle (Nolan’s script never calls her Catwoman), and Marion Cotillard in an unrewarding role as a slippery corporate executive.
The Dark Knight Rises is an entertaining and interesting film, though not exactly a transformative one. It’s not as mad or strange as The Dark Knight, say, while the “city imperilled” plotline is hardly new to comic book movies, most recently having been wheeled out for The Avengers. What it does do is provide a satisfying closure for Nolan and Bale, for whom this is their last Batfilm. Whoever takes on the franchise next will have a hard act to follow: these films have been, by and large, exemplary examples of their kind. But I hope now he’s done with this that Nolan will revisit smaller, more intimate projects like Insomnia and leave the pyrotechnics behind.