Dark was the knight, cold was the clown

Despite the presence of the Joker, this superhero franchise is grimmer than ever

<strong>The Dark

The hero of The Dark Knight is a dour, psychologically flawed champion of the disenfranchised, given to sudden rages, whose war on crime is looking a touch ineffectual. He was once heralded as a force for good but the public now regards him with hostility. And he spends much of his time brooding over news reports of his own demise as his white-haired assistant looks worriedly on. Ring any bells? Yes, Gordon Brown might fancy himself as Heathcliff, but on the strength of The Dark Knight, he's a dead ringer for this embittered Batman.

There are discrepancies. Batman (Christian Bale) hacks into millions of private phone conversations in his attempt to stop the Joker (Heath Ledger) killing thousands of people, whereas the PM would presumably consider that an irresponsibly wishy-washy approach to the terrorist threat. And Batman drives a formidable armour-plated Batmobile that has "Loiter" and "Intimidate" settings; Brown no longer even has John Prescott, who comes with the exact same features.

They are, however, both prone to being upstaged by their adversaries. Not that I would flatter David Cameron by comparing him to the late, charismatic Ledger. The only possible overlap is that the Joker is fond of firebombing hospitals, which is not dissimilar to what the Tories did to the National Health Service.

Even without Ledger's tragic death this year, his twitchy turn would have dominated The Dark Knight. We are used to the Devil having all the best tunes, but Ledger's performance amounts to an aria of enigmatic menace. There's the chalky face with its charcoal eyes, obscenely smudged kisser and an untamed tongue that he can scarcely keep in his mouth. Further creepiness comes from his hunched posture and scuttling, dance-like movements. When he finally manages to fell Batman, he is beside himself with glee - he hops up and down, spitting and jabbering, too overjoyed to inflict much damage.

The director, Christopher Nolan, and his brother and co-writer, Jonathan, have broken the laws of backstory in this film by making the Joker's history a blank. Each time he has someone at knifepoint, he offers a contrasting account of how he came to have his mouth slashed into a gruesome grin. No one knows how the Joker became so twisted.

The struggle between Batman and the Joker, the embodiment of anarchy, is analogous with the modern world's battle against terrorism. The Joker cannot be reasoned with - "I just do things," he explains in his aw-shucks whine. Batman must work out how to defeat this enemy without becoming his equal in savagery.

It is pleasingly perverse to find this troublesome moral dilemma being explored within the confines of a shoot-'em-up blockbuster, even if the picture does obey the other conventions of the form - it's 45 minutes too long and has a score that resembles what concussion might sound like if it could be played by an orchestra.

But the film makes a common undergraduate mistake of equating intelligence with gloominess. As the Joker asks several times: "Why so serious?" The superhero film took a sombre turn after Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, striking its gravest note when X-Men opened with a scene set in a concentration camp. Yet neither of those pictures could be described as a dirge. Regrettably, the same cannot be said of The Dark Knight.

There are ample opportunities in the plot for sly humour, all of which are overlooked by the Nolan brothers. The Joker's habit of wiping out his accomplices after each heist, for example, cries out for a running gag about the difficulty of employing new assistants. And there's black comedy to be wrung from his weird omnipresence, which enables him to overpower entire SWAT units, set up multiple hostage situations and plant bombs with ease.

I admire The Dark Knight for its good intentions, but it has too much psychology and not enough pop. It's possible to be too serious, you know. Just ask Gordon.

Pick of the week

Quiet City/Dance Party, USA (nc)
dir: Aaron Katz
Double bill from the new US indie sensation. He's really good!

Paris (15)
dir: Cédric Klapisch
Gorgeous ensemble drama with Juliette Binoche, Fabrice Luchini and François Cluzet.

Berlin (12A)
dir: Julian Schnabel
The concert film of Lou Reed's bleaktastic album.

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 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide