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Darkness visible

Darkness visible

Robert Pattinson is the perfect Batman for our times, in a movie that owes more to classic film noir than blockbuster superhero franchises

Frank Miller, one of the greatest comic book interpreters of Batman, captured the essence of the character precisely: “Immortal, and as undestroyable as a many-faceted diamond… You can toss Batman across the room. You can crash him against the ceiling, against the floor, against the wall. You can interpret him in a hundred ways, and they all work.”

Frank Miller’s Batman for DC Comics

In his first outing as Gotham’s Caped Crusader (general release, 4 March), Robert Pattinson does indeed take his fair share of physical and psychological knocks – we see the scars on the back, and (more often) the ill-concealed emotional cost of his past and the double life he has chosen. 

Matt Reeves directs Pattinson on set

Though director Matt Reeves sensibly eschews the traditional origins story that clogs up many a superhero movie, The Batman is set early in Bruce Wayne’s career as a masked vigilante, as he tests the limits of his endurance, the depths of his determination to avenge the murder of his parents, and the strains upon his psyche that this brutal work entails.

Once dismissed as no more than the teen sensation of the Twilight movies, Pattinson has established himself as one of the most interesting and adventurous screen performers now at work: notably in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time (2017), Claire Denis’ science fiction odyssey High Life (2018) and his astonishing collaboration with Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse (2019).

Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse, 2019

In this respect, he brings acting talent to the part to rival Christian Bale’s in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – though his version of Bruce Wayne, lanky haired and kohl-eyed, is more overtly frangible, damaged by PTSD and disconnected from a world he believes is full of darkness. The label of “emo Batman” – which quickly took hold on the basis of the movie’s trailers and its deployment of Nirvana’s ‘Something in the Way’ – is too glib. But, more than any of the other actors that have played Batman since Tim Burton’s movie in 1989 (Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Bale and Ben Affleck), Pattinson dives deep into the trauma and instability that are – or should be – at the heart of the character (for a full account of the Caped Crusader through the decades, try Matthew K. Manning’s Batman: A Visual History).

At three hours, the movie asks plenty of its audiences, but they are rewarded by Greig Fraser’s stunning cinematography – Gotham has never looked more captivating or menacing – and a tremendous ensemble cast. Jeffrey Wright is excellent as Lieutenant Jim Gordon, Batman’s ally in the war against Gotham’s criminals, while Andy Serkis plays surrogate father as butler Alfred Pennyworth. Zoe Kravitz is so good as Catwoman that it is hard to imagine she will not be offered her own spin-off franchise.

With fine symmetry, Batman first appeared in 1939, the year of Sigmund Freud’s death. Though Bob Kane can scarcely have imagined that his character would have such a rich and complex future when he delivered The Case of the Chemical Syndicate for publication in Detective Comics #27, it would quickly become a hallmark of Batman’s adventures – in stories mostly written by Bill Finger – that his adversaries were as psychologically disturbed as he was. What made Heath Ledger so unforgettable as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) was that he so cunningly tempted Batman towards the border that separates sanity from the longing to watch the world burn. 

In this respect, Paul Dano’s performance as the Riddler is one of the most memorable in the Batman canon, channelling the zeal that made him so gripping in There Will Be Blood (2007) while importing to the part references to the Zodiac killer and the Saw franchise. Colin Farrell, unrecognisable in prosthetics is also good as the Penguin. But it is Dano’s chilling portrayal of wickedness that truly scratches at the psyche.

Paul Dano as Riddler

Though in earlier comic book iterations Batman was often styled the “World’s Greatest Detective”, this notion of the superhero as sleuth has played little part in previous movies. But The Batman is, at heart, a modern classic of detective film noir: as distant as one can imagine from the kitsch of the 1960s Adam West TV series, and a long way, too, from Burton’s magic realism in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). 

In this context, Reeves has acknowledged an explicit debt to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and to William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), and the brooding aesthetic of The Batman instantly recalls David Fincher’s Se7en (1995). But, in its preoccupation with alienation, despair, dubious motive, the loneliness of the justice-seeker and the deep corruption afflicting institutions of every kind, the movie draws on an even deeper well of film noir: one that can be traced back to the movies of directors such as Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Joseph H. Wilson, Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Ray. 

Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M, 1931

The Batman owes almost nothing to the spirit of the modern superhero blockbuster but positively bristles with “the anguish and insecurity…[and] specific alienation” that Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton famously wrote were the defining characteristics of noir (for an invaluable guide to the genre, try Film Noir Reader, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini).

An apparition, an avenger of the night, a profoundly disturbed young man who believes that “fear is a tool” in the fight against evil: this Batman embraces the darkness more than any of his screen predecessors. 

“They think I’m hiding in the shadows,” he says. “But I am the shadows.” Yes, Gotham gets the hero it deserves. And this is the perfect Batman for times as troubled and unsettling as ours.

Here are this week’s recommendations.

Watch

Mood (all episodes, BBC iPlayer)

Like Michaela Cole’s Chewing Gum and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, this six-part BBC Three series had its origins on the stage: specifically, in Nicôle Lecky’s 2019 one-woman show at the Royal Court, Superhoe. Radically expanded for television, and directed by Dawn Shadforth, Mood explores the musical dreams, troubled relationships and financial struggles of 25-year-old Sasha. An aspiring rapper, she is kicked out of the home where she has been butting heads with her mother (Jessica Hynes) and stepfather (Paul Kaye). “Social media has convinced you that you’re all going to be the next Lisa Stansfield!” he says of Sasha’s generation. “I don’t even know who that is, bruv!” Lecky’s character replies (reasonably enough). Soon, she is living with influencer Carly (Lara Peake) – who encourages her to sign up to the website DailyFans (a clear enough proxy for OnlyFans) and then to become a real-life sex worker at parties. Mood does not shy away from the bleakness of Sasha’s predicament, but is bitingly witty and pulls off extraordinary musical set pieces in which particular scenarios become rap music video clips in her rich imagination. Lecky is definitely one to watch – as is her series.

The Godfather: 50th Anniversary (selected cinemas)

In its first half century, The Godfather has escaped the narrow boundaries of movie appreciation to become something closer to modern myth. The distinctive vernacular of Mario Puzo’s novel (1969), enriched by the screenplay he wrote with director Francis Ford Coppola, is now well entrenched in modern idiom and metaphor: “business not personal”, “going to the mattresses”, “an offer he can’t refuse”, “Leave the gun – take the cannoli”, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”. Coppola sees the full trilogy as a metaphor for modern America (and released a re-edit of the third movie less than two years ago: see Creative Sensemaker, 10 December 2020). Others regard the saga of the Corleones as an operatic exploration of family dynamics and the tragedy, throughout history, of the dynasty that aspires to greatness. In a powerful essay in the current issue of Sight and Sound, the legendary cineaste David Thomson offers an unsettling assessment of the dedication of generations of viewers as “nameless but loyal members of the Corleone family… We long to be made men… The films are as magisterial as the worst leader we might imagine. They disgrace us.” Alternatively: the movies force us to ask: how far would we go to protect those we love, to escape the hypocrisies of a rigged and mendacious social order, and to avoid familial servitude to the pezzonovante? It is questions of this sort – and many others like them – that will still be asked when The Godfather marks its centenary in 2072.

The Ipcress File (ITV, 6 March)

Why trespass on the terrain of a classic? Sidney J. Furie’s 1965 movie version of Len Deighton’s original thriller, starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, is not only the first of five films featuring the character, but the greatest of a post-war cinematic genre: the ironic British espionage movie that presented wry realism as an alternative to the aesthetic of the James Bond movies. Yet, as Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) showed to magnificent effect – by not mimicking the great BBC adaptation of le Carré’s novel – there are many ways of interpreting superb source material. In this respect, Joe Cole – so good in Peaky Blinders and Gangs of London – does not make the mistake of merely imitating Caine, which signals the broader determination of director James Watkins and writer John Hodge to plough their own furrow. Tom Hollander is typically excellent as spymaster William Dalby, as is Lucy Boynton in the role of secret agent Jean Courtney. A promising start.

Read

Good Intentions – Kasim Ali (4th Estate)

Set between 2014 and 2019, this absorbing and highly readable debut novel addresses the intersection of race, mental health and familial obligation. Nur is the eldest son in a family of Pakistani immigrants, involved for four years with Yasmina, a doctoral student of Sudanese heritage. To his shame – and in keeping with a history of anxiety and panic attacks – he dares not tell his loved ones about the relationship because Yasmina is Black, and fears that his mother, in particular, will react badly. “I am not a racist -” he tells Yasmina. “And yet you behave like one,” she replies, adding that “it’s not enough to read the right books, to say the right things, to tweet your anger about police brutality or supporting Black people, if you’re going to come home and make your Black girlfriend feel like she is less than you.” The literary impact of Good Intentions reflects Ali’s readiness to immerse himself in the nuance not only of modern multicultural society but of the complex modern self. 

Waterloo Sunrise: London from the Sixties to Thatcher – John Davis (Princeton University Press, 8 March)

Like Peter Ackroyd’s magisterial “biography” of London, Waterloo Sunrise is a book that is about much more than the capital – using the city’s history, specifically in the Sixties and Seventies, as a prism through which to explore social, cultural and political changes that shook the world. Davis, an emeritus fellow at The Queen’s College, Oxford, applies the full force of his archival scholarship and intellectual range to shed light on the story of London in a period of hectic change. Weighing in at more than 580 pages, his book might seem forbidding to the non-academic reader. Yet like the Kinks classic to which the title playfully alludes, Waterloo Sunrise is infectious, full of human detail, and generous in its narrative sweep. 

Fierce Appetites: Loving, losing and living to excess in my present and the writings of the past – Elizabeth Boyle (Sandycove)

“The Valium kicks in as I’m contemplating a twelfth-century, polychromatic carved wooden head of Christ from Aragon, or Catalonia”: thus does the medieval historian, Elizabeth Boyle, describe a visit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours, in this quite extraordinary collection of essays. The agility with which she connects the lessons of scholarship – she is a lecturer in the Department of Early Irish at Maynooth University – to her own experience and the predicaments of contemporary life is often dazzling. She frames her own sexual and romantic history with reference to an obscure ninth-centuty story called the “Meeting of Líadan and Cuirithir”, while comparing Covid lockdown to the medieval belief “that staying put was best” and encouraged “something called stabilitas”. All of which might seem pretentious were it not for the fearlessly confessional and personal character of her writing. We are living in a true golden age of female essayists – notably, but not comprehensively, Rebecca Solnit, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, Claudia Rankine, Jia Tolentino – a remarkable list to which the name of Elizabeth Boyle must now be added.

Listen

23 – Central Cee

Less than a year since the release of his fine debut mixtape, Wild West (see Creative Sensemaker, 18 March, 2021), Central Cee (AKA Cench, or Oakley Ceasar-Su) returns with 15 tracks that are still more impressive. In the style of Adele, the album’s title refers to the artist’s age, and is a reminder of how much he has already achieved. Having mastered the most important venue in modern music – namely TikTok – he now has a string of chart hits, a gold album, and three Brit nominations to his name. What makes 23 so interesting is the creative development that it reflects. While true to Central Cee’s Shepherd’s Bush drill roots, it draws upon jazz, romantic pop (‘Mrs’) and continental hip hop: ‘Eurovision’, which brings together Europe’s finest rappers, has already been hailed, with pardonable exaggeration, as the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of trap. There is also plenty of personal reflection, sometimes melancholic (“I was dead broke, I had no hope, I sat and thought about ending my life”), more often the product of lessons learned the hard way (“I thought the road was cool as a young boy/It’s not though, I got misled”). All that is best in contemporary rap is to be found in 23: astute lyricism, broad eclecticism and emotional power.

Origins – Coco Tomita (4 March)

Having won the strings category of BBC Young Musician in 2020 and gold medals at the Vienna International and Berlin International competitions (and studied at the Yehudi Menuhin school), Coco Tomita is now establishing herself as a first-rank performer. In her debut album, Stradivarius in hand, she teams up with pianist Simon Callaghan – opting for an impressively unpredictable range of pieces: from Enescu’s ‘Impressions d’enfance’, via Lili Boulanger’s ‘Nocturne’ and Hubay’s ‘Fantaisie brillante’ to Debussy’s ‘Beau Soir’. Tomita has said that her selection “relates..especially [to] female violinists I hugely respect” – notably Ginette Neveu and Jelly d’Aranyi – and this terrific recording is a first step on the path to comparable greatness.

..and thank you to Tortoise’s Head of Social, Andrew Butler, for his recommendation of angel in realtime. by Gang of Youths:

“Having flexed their considerable musical muscles in their epic, 77-minute sophomore album, Go Farther in Lightness, Gang of Youths return with a third album full of crowd pleasers and festival-floor fillers.

The passing of frontman Dave Le’aupepe’s father in 2018 is the common thread which holds the Australian-formed, London-based band’s latest release together – though the themes of faith and identity, present in their previous albums, are still scattered throughout.

Le’aupepe has been labelled a ‘Pacifika Bono’, which isn’t entirely unjustified, and evident in the album’s mid-section of ‘tend the garden’, ‘the kingdom is within you’ and ‘spirit boy’. But in typical Gang of Youths fashion, it is an album that spans the euphoric and moving. Well worth a listen.”

Explore

The Collaboration – Young Vic (until 2 April)

The creative partnership between Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat has been the stuff of artistic legend for more than 30 years – inspiring, for instance, Julian Schnabel’s 1996 movie Basquiat (starring David Bowie as the pop art icon and Jeffrey Wright as the young graffiti artist whose extraordinary Afro-American expressionism took the beau monde by storm in the Eighties) and Michael Dayton Hermann’s lavish book, Warhol on Basquiat: The Iconic Relationship Told in Andy Warhol’s Words & Pictures (2019). In this marvellous production of Anthony McCarten’s new play, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, Paul Bettany takes on the role of Warhol opposite Jeremy Pope as Basquiat – both of them superb. The questions posed by the play are profound, not least because such creative relationships so often hover between passionate sincerity and mutual exploitation. Warhol believes art is about “surfaces” and mass production and commodification. Basquiat, in total contrast, sees art as unruly, messy, transcendent, even magical. “The next time you die, Andy,” says the younger painter, “I’ll bring you back to life. I know I can do it” – and, when he says it, you believe that he just might. (To be enjoyed in tandem with The Andy Warhol Diaries, streaming on Netflix from 9 March.) 

And finally…

Thank you to Stevie Gedge from Kite – our brand new festival of music and ideas at Kirtlington Park on 10-12 June – for her recommendation of Self Esteem, confirmed this week as one of the fantastic acts that will be appearing at this unmissable weekend:

“Self Esteem soundtracks my runs, my showers, my cooking, and she never fails to make me sing and dance. Pop, but make it badass. Rebecca Lucy Taylor is honest and unapologetic in her lyric writing, dealing with self-doubt, heartbreak, sexual assault – her journey is real and I’m there for it. And her live performance is a total joy. There seems a strange destiny to her being on stage. A wild ride of full-on band noise, astonishing a cappella and captivating dance routines make for an empowering and deeply satisfying experience. Self Esteem on the BBC Introducing Stage at Glastonbury wearing a dress made of Boots Advantage Cards was undoubtedly the highlight of one of my best trips to Worthy Farm. Don’t miss her at Kite!”

Tortoise members get 20 per cent off tickets to Kite.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs courtesy Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros & DC Comics, Frank Miller/DC Comics, Focus Features/A24, Natalie Seery/BBC, ITV, Netflix, Marc Brenner/ Young Vic, Thomas M Jackson/Redferns/Getty Images