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The Nolanverse: A Christopher Nolan Retrospective – Part 2/3

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Watch the first part below:

  1. Batman Begins (2005)

When Nolan got his first blockbuster, he approached it in the same way he made his previous films, but set against a much larger canvas. He had been given a difficult job – the popular DC superhero had been in four films over the last sixteen years, starting in 1989 with Tim Burton’s gothic-pantomime Batman, and ending rather sourly in 1997 with Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, which was somehow even camper than Adam West’s incarnation in the 1960s TV show. Therefore Nolan’s mission was to breathe new life into a dead franchise, and get viewers to invest themselves once more in a character that had been around for sixty-six years.

Nolan ended up creating a rich, rewarding movie in two halves: first it was a deeply personal account of a billionaire orphan growing up, trying to discover his purpose in life; second it was an all-action epic with dramatically high stakes. From the off, it’s clear that Nolan’s take on the character is different, but just as iconic as what has come before, we see Gotham as a huge living, breathing city; one that informs and is influenced by its millions of inhabitants. It’s clear that crime isn’t just something that happens in Gotham: there are structures holding it in place, whether that be the mob that infiltrates even the highest orders of the city’s law, or the homeless population that live practically underneath the city. The corruption gets to a young Bruce Wayne, who is on the look out for revenge following his parent’s death at the hands of a petty crook – a much more powerful take on a story point when compared with Burton’s Batman, where the Joker is behind the trigger. In Batman Begins, Wayne’s motives are higher, and more complex: he wants justice, but starts off not knowing how to get it. Cue a bit of soul-searching in the East, where he meets Liam Neeson’s Rhas Al Guul, who teaches him the skills to battle evil. Upon returning to Gotham, he finds the city has tipped even further into destitution, with Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow leading the path of villainy with the most powerful tool there is: Fear.

The movie sees Nolan operating in a genre approaching fantasy, something which would disappear almost entirely with its sequel, The Dark Knight, and yet it has every bearing of his personal style, which by this point in his career had been firmly established. It features the same fractured narrative you can find in his previous three films, especially concerning the movie’s first half. In blockbuster terms, it would be his first time where he operated with the arsenal he’d tinker with later on: explosions, CGI, huge-scale action and adventure. But importantly, even at this early stage, there’s rarely an action moment here that’s engineered not as a practical effect – realism is clearly Nolan’s focus, no matter how absurd the character and world of Batman is. You could say it was magic: which would be the subject of his next movie…

Something you might not know about Batman Begins:

Jeremy Theobald, who played the lead in Nolan’s first film Following, plays a small part toward the climax of the movie as ‘Younger Gotham Water Board Technician’.

  1. The Prestige (2006)

Nolan returned to more regular dramatic tropes with The Prestige in 2006, taking a break from blockbusters right between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight; but despite appearances, nothing about The Prestige is regular. This is a lesson that would form the basis of perhaps the director’s best work to date.

Charting the rise of two stage magicians, Alfred Borden and Robert Angier, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman respectively, the movie focuses on the intense rivalry that forms between the two men after one tragic accident leads them to forever play off against the other. They constantly sabotage the other’s performances, resulting in injury both physical and emotional; Borden’s life is filled with success, but he hides a terrible secret, while Angier exists only to surpass the imagined bliss of his rival. But what drew him to adapt The Prestige, the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest, in the first place? It was probably the fact that, cinematically at least, it deals with the very fabric of reality, and what men will do to smash through that fabric to get what they want. The Prestige is a gripping, endlessly inventive thriller from the get-go, but the moment it really becomes an unforgettable picture is when it enacts a sudden gear-change in genre.

It’s interesting to see how much Nolan gets from his actors: Jackman has never been better, while the rest of the cast are brilliant. Scarlett Johansson puts in possibly her most nuanced performance ever, while Rebecca Hall is perfectly cast as Borden’s conflicted wife. Like every film before, The Prestige is again about a broken man, looking to find redemption or some semblance of it. But most importantly, Nolan understands that real magic is cinema: like a master illusionist, he uses misdirection and concealment just like a real illusionist would, and the result is the finest film of his career. Many would disagree once his next movie hit cinemas though…

Something you might not know about The Prestige:

If you take the first letters of Christian Bale’s and Hugh Jackman’s characters and put them together – Alfred Borden Robert Angier – you get ‘Abra’, as in ‘Abracadabra’.

  1. The Dark Knight (2008)

Batman Begins always felt like the Batman movie Nolan always wanted to make. And now that he had made it, what could he do with the sequel to keep himself interested? By dropping everything that kept Batman attached to fantasy, and bringing the Caped Crusader kicking and screaming into a world that felt as real as it could be.

The Dark Knight sees Bruce Wayne go up against his greatest foe: The Joker. Plenty has been said about Heath Ledger’s iconic performance as the clown prince of anarchy, a role that would define his version of the character as the definitive one, trumping even Jack Nicholson’s leering portrayal in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. But to focus too much on Ledger’s towering performance would be to neglect what really gets The Dark Knight stuck inside pop culture: in his uncompromising approach to ground the world of Gotham in realism, Nolan turned the movie into a crime saga, with the man himself admitting that Michael Mann’s Heat was a major inspiration. Take the now classic opening scene of the bank heist, where tension is played out fantastically over the course of five minutes in a Batman-free and, until the very last moments, Joker-free set piece marking that we are in a very different ball park than its predecessor. Its ambition extends to other levels, too. The film’s climax takes the central action away from the main characters, and into the hands of Gotham’s folk where they’re placed in a morally challenging situation: isolated on two separate boats, one filled with regular citizens, the other with Gotham inmates, the Joker gives them an ultimatum: blow up the other boat with a device left in their hands, or allow both ships to be blown to smithereens when the clock has run out. It’s challenging stuff, and thrilling to see, in what is meant to be a superhero flick.

There are many other brilliant facets to The Dark Knight, such as Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent – a performance that is just as brilliant as, but overshadowed by, Heath Ledger’s – and when he eventually becomes Two-Face, this additional villain is fitted perfectly in as a metaphor of the movie’s central theme of good versus evil; light versus dark; and the delicate balance between them. Although The Dark Knight does suffer from a meandering plot at times, and a lack of development between Wayne and his butler Alfred that gave the first movie its heart, it did redefine the comic book movie, and also made a shedload at the box office. Having now properly proven his clout as a blockbuster auteur, his next project would be his most daring and ambitious yet…

Something you might not know about The Dark Knight:

Both the videos that Joker sends to the Gotham News Station were directed by Heath Ledger himself.

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