Friday, January 9, 2015

Recommended! (sorta): Batman & Robin (1997)

And what a qualified recommendation this is. Batman & Robin is an absolutely execrable piece of moviemaking, killing the 80s/90s Batman franchise with ghastly color schemes, wooden action, stale villains, and director Joel Schumacher's addled camp excesses. (You could even argue that it wrecked the Batman franchise twice, as it paved the way for Christopher Nolan to reinvigorate the character with a pompous, overcompensatingly serious and self-aggrandizing trilogy.)

But goddammit, Michael Gough is fantastic in Batman & Robin. This incredibly accomplished actor racked up many credits in his nine-plus decades on Earth, working with the likes of Laurence Olivier and Powell & Pressburger in his early years. He made a strong impression in a number of British horror movies of the 50s and 60s, and then in his late career diversified wildly, working for such disparate directors as Wes Craven, Derek Jarman, and Tim Burton (becoming a company regular for those latter two). Always bringing solid characterization, a mellifluous voice, and a steady but never overbearing presence to everything he did. And that includes the four Batman movies by Burton and Schumacher.

As Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne's loyal butler and Batman's closest ally, Gough is exceptionally fine, and across all four movies is a supportive presence in the Wayne/Batman corner, the quintessential right-hand. Gough's Alfred is a man who knows when and where to step in when assistance is needed, but also when and where to address his employer man to man. Look at his scenes with Michael Keaton in Burton's Batman; addressing Master Bruce regarding the new woman in his life, Gough effortlessly balances the employee, the close friend, and the knowledgeable elder.

In the otherwise perfectly wretched Batman & Robin, Gough retains and even builds upon Alfred's previously established gravitas, his own debilitating illness juicing a personal stake in the threats facing Batman and Gotham City. It's a profound and unearned contrast to the otherwise gaudy action of the rest of the movie, but Gough makes it work. If he thinks that the whole thing is otherwise a mess but is at least tending to his own corner of that mess, it doesn't show. He remains the human heart of the franchise here. His humanity even accounts for a certain impishness that manages to account for the implication in Barbara's line "Suit me up, Uncle Alfred" that he's responsible for the pervy latex Batsuits affected by Wayne & associates.

One of the indelible and reliable pleasures of cinema is watching classically trained actors giving their all in lower-brow, even trashy, genre material. Gough developed a preference for supporting roles, playing all of them solidly, and if his work as Alfred in these movies, even Batman & Robin, is what he's best remembered for, then no shame. Gough's presence grounds and lends dignity to even the wildest, most overbaked trash he appeared in, and if his presence isn't quite enough to solidly recommend Batman & Robin, at least it's a lifeline that sustains us as even as the movie's gaudy atrocities threaten to overwhelm.

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