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The Dark Knight Rises - review

The latest Batman film is too grand for its own good.

Casting quirks have introduced into the current superhero blockbusters an element of the racially divisive – at least for British audiences, who will be asked to choose between England and Wales as well as good and evil. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman is again played by a Welshman (Christian Bale), albeit one who speaks in the husky mid-Atlantic drawl of a late-night DJ. The role of his tormentor, Bane, is taken by Tom Hardy, a London-born actor dynamic enough to inflate a character who’s no more than a glorified heavy. Then there is The Amazing Spider- Man in which Andrew Garfield (Anglo-American but English-raised and accented) is pitted against Rhys Ifans (nationality: take a wild guess). Hollywood always has superhero movies on the go, so I’d clear my diary prettysharpish if I were Rob Brydon or Nerys Hughes.

These sorts of connections can suggest themselves while you’re watching a film going through the motions. The Dark Knight Rises ends a trilogy that has revived a discredited franchise, while The Amazing Spider-Man is wooing viewers with another incarnation of something they’ve already rejected. “Reboot” is the snazzy name given to this flogging of an almost-expired horse but there’s an element of re-shoeing as well: a fastening of shiny new silverware on to the same weary beast. There’s nothing amazing about The Amazing Spider-Man but it’s nice to be reminded that incidental human pleasures are more special than effects. Each ephemeral puff of the film’s CGI has faded from my memory, yet I retain the vivid image of Garfield, with his giraffe limbs, swan’s neck and sculptural nest of hair, skipping – skipping! – with happiness.

Such frivolity in a Batman movie would be punishable with a spell in the hellish prison where the hero spends most of The Dark Knight Rises. The writer-director Christopher Nolan has fashioned a unique psychic space for this trilogy: scuzzy and urban in texture and tone but with leaps into the grotesque, the films are devoutly po-faced. Only now, with The Dark Knight Rises, has their effect become anaesthetising, so that we barely register surprise unless there is a naughty thrill, such as the sight of tanks rolling past Saks Fifth Avenue. As the picture opens, Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, has been absent from public life for seven years, and Gotham City needs him. “The Batman has to come back!” gasps Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), sounding not unlike a Warner Bros executive realising that the studio is all out of Harry Potter films.

The urgency can be summed up in a word: Bane. Like Batman, Bane has a thing for masks; his one administers pain-numbing gas beneath what looks like a boxer’s sparring headgear clamped on to his bulb-like skull. It also muffles his delivery; struggling to enunciate, he sounds like John Houseman with his fist in his gob. (The line “What a lovely voice” comes out as “Whah wuvee woss.”) Hardy has apparently re-dubbed the part since early footage was greeted with a universal “Eh?” but he still makes the summer’s only blockbuster to require an ear trumpet instead of 3D glasses.

Bane kills his own henchmen with the kind of casualness typical in a hirer’s economy but this is a mere preamble to his master plan: to destroy Gotham using an atomic bomb that resembles a giant Christmas bauble (and would be almost as painful if trodden on). Bruce is banished to a far-off, primitive prison (the film is big on prolonged suffering – he has to share a cell with Tom Conti). But he has many allies to fight in his stead including a young police detective (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) unembarrassed to commandeer a school bus full of orphans in an action movie, and a burglar who cracks Bruce’s safe before somersaulting out of the window like a kung-fu Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. That’s Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who favours the dainty eye-mask rather than the PVC bodysuit of yore. She also gets a go on the Batbike, which has wheels that roll sideways; it’s like an executive toy. But then everything in a Christopher Nolan movie feels as if it belongs on the desk of a CEO.

As Nolan’s films have got bigger, he has gravitated away from eloquent spectacle and towards clinical destruction. The Dark Knight Rises has riots and street battles and freeway chases; AK-47s go off so regularly that the silence between the rounds is more startling than the gunfire itself. But among the Blues Brothers- style excess, there is no single image to rival the Cocteau-esque horror of that intimate scene in Nolan’s Batman Begins when the villain, zonked on his own hallucinogenic gas, imagined a warped, seething vision of Batman. When the new movie contrives an opportunity for the awe-inspiring, such as the sequence involving a football field primed with explosives, it is invariably rushed, as though there were 100 more arresting scenes to get to. (There aren’t.) Nolan has become hooked on the grandiose, at times even the biblical. For anyone who admired the witty playfulness of his early films, it’s a dark night indeed.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis