Batman Begins (12a)

Directed by Christopher Nolan
On general release from 16th June 2005

Reviewed by Tim Kopp

For two-thirds of its length, Batman Begins is a terrifically entertaining and stimulating film in which Nolan's non-linear narrative style and excellent acting from nearly the entire cast transcend the flaws of Goyer's script and the muddled action scenes. The cliches and mindless bombast of the last half hour leave room for improvement in future instalments but nevertheless Nolan's film restores credibility to Warner's tarnished franchise.
**** out of five

In the wake of his parents' murder, millionaire heir Bruce Wayne travels to Asia to study and understand the criminal mind. There he joins the League of Shadows after an invitation from the enigmatic Ducard who trains him in martial arts and instructs him to confront his greatest fears (Wayne suffers from a phobia of bats after an early childhood trauma). When Wayne returns to Gotham City, he finds the city in the grip of crime and corruption that extends to the police and the courts. With the help of butler Alfred and scientist Lucius Fox, Wayne adopts a new persona as the masked crusader Batman to fight Gotham's underworld led by gangster boss Falcone and mad scientist Jonathan Crane.

Ever since Warner first announced that a new Batman film, based on a variety of sources including Frank Miller's comic The Dark Knight Returns, would tell the story of his origins, Batman Begins has been one of the most anticipated recent Hollywood films in development. For one, the film faces the challenge of reestablishing the series as a major franchise after the last two entries directed by Joel Schumacher had gone down disastrously with audiences. The film sparked further interest when the studio brought British director Christopher Nolan on board: would his particular sensibilities be in harmony with the style and demands of a big-budget studio film? In the main Nolan succeeds, most notably in the first two acts where the partially non-linear narrative structure recalls Memento, creating a similar kind of disorientation and demanding active audience participation. It is to Nolan's credit that the repeated shift between past and present in the first half hour or so never lacks clarity. On the contrary, the feeling of disorientation only strengthens the prevailing sense of dread that Goyer emphasises (not always convincingly) in his script, particularly in the early exchanges between Wayne and Ducard. Combined with explanatory flashbacks to Wayne's past, the first half of the film is a very suspenseful and terrifically acted story about Wayne's search for his identity and his attempts to overcome his fears. In that sense, the horror elements in Batman Begins (the appearances of the bats bring to mind Hitchcock's The Birds) are appropriate and effective, thanks in no small part to Cilian Murphy's performance as Dr Crane and a superbly recreated, organic mask for the Scarecrow.

The film is less convincing in its action scenes: Nolan's close-up shooting and rapid editing-style does not lend itself to hand-to-hand combat and turns most fight scenes into a sloppily choreographed mess that is at times almost impossible to follow. Given that the last act with its emphasis on overbearing bombast, aural and visual overkill is equally disappointing, one surmises that Nolan hasn't quite mastered the material and made it his own yet. On the other hand, Batman Begins is, save for a chase sequence with the Batmobile and the silliness of the third act, endearingly insistent on, and consistent in portraying its world and characters realistically and abiding by the rules it establishes at the beginning. This gives the film and the series at large a conviction and credibility it had always and particularly during the Schumacher years lacked.

The largely predominant darkness of the film (reflected visually in a film-noir style of low-key lighting, dominance of shadows and torrential rain as well as references to Blade Runner) is occasionally offset by uneven humour: there is genuinely funny and warm comic relief from Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman and one hilarious running gag about the look of Batman's vehicle but the less said about the strained one-liners that Goyer feeds his characters the better. His script also does some of the supporting players a disservice: Katie Holmes gives the only underwhelming performance in an otherwise excellent cast but she is not helped by Goyer's poor character development. Other characters, like Officer Gordon, the only good cop left in town (Gary Oldman giving a very good performance in a refreshing change of casting), get too little screentime. Goyer compounds this by reducing Gordon almost to a hapless sidekick in the frantic finale when he aids Batman more out of luck and chance than real intuition. The film stumbles perceptibly at times but it gets more than enough right to qualify as a success, and in Christian Bale it has the best Batman, most certainly the best Bruce Wayne the series has given us yet.

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