The losing of America

Image of Nigel Andrews

“Landlord of England art thou now, not king,” said John of Gaunt to Richard II, in the words of William Shakespeare. What does The Dark Knight say to those ruling the US? It surely says, as foreign interests and investments creep across the land from Hollywood to New York: “Tenants of America are ye now, not owners.”

This must be why the new Batman epic is the biggest opener in US filmgoing history. The blast of truth, giddied up with fun and fantasy, has a morbid irresistibility. The Dark Knight is about America losing America. Its narrative starting point is a Hong Kong mastermind’s scheme to hijack Gotham City’s business empire, with help from a teeming Slavic and European Mafia.

We already know the real, pre-movie facts about the US. China owns the mortgage on its economy. Militant Islam holds to ransom its security. And Britain has a controlling share in its popular culture, or at least its big-money movie fare (Rowling, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Pullman, Fleming). Now, even in the US-originated Batman franchise, the UK rules. The Dark Knight writer-director is a Limey, Christopher Nolan. Three main actors are British: Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine. Even the Joker is a Commonwealth interloper, one Heath Ledger, a deceased Australian managing to outact the living Americans.

A nation in panic? Quite possibly. Like lambs going to a preview of their slaughter, America paid $155m for an opening weekend’s peep. The film – let us be honest – is less interesting than the resonances of its doomsaying. It bangs about for two and a half hours in shades of black, smashing cars, torching buildings, hurtling from high roofs, cackling, chasing, and getting in your face with sudden, perspective-changing, histrionic close-ups.

Heath Ledger

Ledger’s much-publicised Joker is a party trick that wears a little thin: a whiny, chuckling, jowl-wagging grotesque – Richard Nixon melded with early Richard Widmark – with peeling makeup and an everyday bad hair day. The actor’s short-fuse virtuosity doesn’t match Jack Nicholson’s teased-out teasing in Tim Burton’s Batman, though he is still more fun than the Americans here: Aaron Eckhart’s one-note Two-Face Harvey, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s limply simpering heroine. This instalment of the new Batman cycle should be treated by Hollywood and the US as a direct invitation to fight back: to prove, next time, that foreign devils don’t have the best tunes and non-Americans the most swaggering way of pronouncing doom on America.

The Makhmalbafs are to film what the Bachs were, or are, to music. How many more members of this Iranian family will incise themselves on history? After Mohsen, Samira and materfamilias Meshkiya, here is the first feature film from Hana, the screening of whose debut short at Venice five years ago made her, at 14, the youngest director ever invited to a big festival. Buddha Collapsed out of Shame is another work of precocious wonder. Like Samira’s Blackboards, it takes its images and visual metaphors from education, affirming learning and enlightenment as the weapons against oppression.

Opening with archive flashbacks to the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas – that barbarity that forever defined Taliban rule in Afghanistan – the film has the simplest of plots. Six-year-old Bakhtay (Bakhtay Noroozali), a bright-eyed sprog living in the cave community carved into the Bamiyan cliff, whose empty statue niches are as poignant as the space left in the New York sky by 9/11, only wants, on the day we watch her, to go to school to learn to read – and to hear the “funny stories” her little-boy neighbour has been taught.

But she must negotiate her way there like the hero of a mini-epic. She must barter eggs for a school notebook; ask directions from a wise old man by the river (who makes a paper boat and floats it downstream as a guide). Above all she must survive a frightening, brilliantly choreographed ambush by boys caught up in a game of “let’s be the Taliban”.

This sequence is scary enough to induce nightmares. Sticks for rifles; stones held high in hands for the ritual execution with which Bakhtay is threatened; detention in a cave with three other captured kids, cast as “Americans” and hooded with paper bags punched with holes for mouth and eyes. No other film has more simply, yet forcefully, scorched on our senses the horror of organised intimidation. Honour to Hana for the movie’s cumulative power. Honour to her mum Meshkiya, credited with the original screenplay. Buddha ends with comedy and a happiness of sorts. But its terrors do not go away, nor the ghost-presence of those Buddhas that died – so that others might fight – in Afghanistan’s never-ending battle for freedom and aspiration.

Back to earth with a thud, or an amiable pratfall, in Gurinder Chadha’s Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. The Bend It Like Beckham director borrows her grab-bag title from the near-homonymous novel by Louise Rennison – the film humours propriety only by substituting “perfect” for “full-frontal” – and mines mirth and charm from the slang-rich lingo of teenage schoolgirls chasing schoolboys one hormonal Eastbourne summer. Listen out for “boy-lingual”, “Zitney Spears” and “beyond the valley of the gorgeous”. Georgia Groome (the runaway moppet in London to Brighton) leads the pack, betraying the film’s tendency to condescension – or transatlantic accessibility – only by e-nunc-i-ating every line a little too deliberately. Come on, girl. We have all read Julie Burchill and watched Catherine Tate. We all understand Chav.

Everyone speaks cut-glass English in Before the Rains. What else do you expect of a swansong movie from Merchant Ivory? Set in end-of-Raj Kerala, it tells the tale of a stiff-lipped British planter (Linus Roache) undone by a romance with a local girl. The wages of going native; the scenic wonders of the jungle; the warning creaks of imperial collapse. There are bits of everything and not quite enough of anything. But director and ex-cinematographer Santosh Sivan (The Terrorist) does handsome screen painting.

Paris and Berlin! Those two names used to be buzzwords of glamorous cosmopolitanism. But in Paris and Lou Reed’s Berlin they fall buzzing to the floor like death-sprayed flies. The first is a tale of life and love in the French capital from Cédric Klapisch (When the Cat’s Away). Overblown and under-conceived, it has a star cast without enough to twinkle for (Juliette Binoche, Romain Douris, Fabrice Luchini) and too many Hollywood-worthy shots of the Eiffel Tower, Pavlovian prompts for the popcorn crowd.

Julian Schnabel, no less, directs Lou Reed’s 35-year-old rock album Berlin – a chart casualty that became a coterie cult – with the grand old croaker himself leading a full-choir performance of his love-and-death cantata. The film tries hard. It wallops us with volume. It bombards us with moving video backdrops (designed by Schnabel’s daughter Lola). But it still feels, at times, like bringing out the dead.

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