As Christopher Nolan’s final episode of his Dark Knight trilogy is released, speculation is rife about Batman’s nemesis and alter ego, arch-villain Bane, played by Tom Hardy in a mask that has already become hot property on eBay. Hardy’s performance as Bane is set to become legendary — up there with Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger as The Joker. Bane is an adversary of epic proportions: well-educated, highly intelligent and multi-lingual with phenomenal physical strength and abilities — attributes developed during a childhood spent in prison. His origins and exploits are complex enough to leave the non-aficionado thoroughly bemused, but he is the victim of a terrible injustice that has left him scarred and angry. Part-revolutionary, part-mercenary, part-terrorist, he is a violent anarchic force fixated on bringing down Gotham City and Wayne Enterprises (NB link contains spoilers).
Powerful presence though Bane is, his costume tells another story. The mask, which he wears permanently, covers his mouth and nose and supplies him with pain-relieving gas. This is an update on Bane’s Venom-ingesting face wear, which allowed him to pump up his body, giving him incredible strength, and also fed his drug addiction. In Nolan’s film, Bane’s mask is linked to an earlier trauma — possibly a spine injury requiring surgery that has left him dependent on pain killers. The conduit for the pain-killing gas is unclear, but his body-armour could be the container. Ostensibly an urban warrior, Bane is hooked up to medication like a hospital patient, and his drug dependency throws doubt on his apparent invincibility. The mask’s graphic qualities recall Nolan’s visualisation in Memento (2000) of the body as site of the inscription of trauma.
Bane’s vulnerability is underlined by his shearling jacket (made from the pelt of young sheep), whose ‘natural’ style and texture contrast sharply with the quasi-scientific mechanical contraption that encases his face. While the shearling coat and mask may intimate the bestial and fetish imagery of Batman’s (Christian Bale) and Catwoman’s (Anne Hathaway) costumes, the smooth, close-fitting black rubber is absent (Bruce Wayne/Batman are both ‘men in suits’ — Bane, like other Batman villains, is notably rumpled). Bane’s eyes, neck and frontal lobes are exposed, suggesting emotional susceptibility. Perhaps most significant is the effect of the mask on his voice, which is muffled and distorted. He is impaired on many levels; although most Batman characters are damaged, the extent of the trauma suffered is magnified in his case.
Hardy’s performance takes Bane’s unsettling encapsulation of threat and vulnerability to extremes (there are echoes of his virtuoso turn in Bronson ). The mask imposes constraints and possibilities; without the usual repertoire of facial expressions, his acting skills are focused on the signifying potential of body language, voice and dress. A spectacular example of the importance of costume design in film — in creating meaning and in determining the actor’s performance.
© Pam Cook