In 1987, the world took notice of a young Welsh actor with a surprising amount of talent. The legendary director Steven Spielberg selected the 13-year-old actor for a starring role, launching him from anonymity to fame. So far, the boy had mostly appeared in commercials, as well as a small role in made-for-TV movie. With “The Empire of the Sun,” however, Christian Bale’s destiny was clear. Over the decades, he would go on to act in dozens of films. His intense ambiance and dedication to his craft mean that Bale enhances most of the films he stars in. All the same, some movies stand out above the rest.
“Empire of the Sun” is Bale’s first major role, and Spielberg’s World War II epic has withstood the test of time. A spoiled young British boy living in China finds his entire life changed after the Japanese occupation. As a prisoner of war, he will grow and change in ways he never could have guessed. Bale tackles the difficult role with subtlety, giving a face to the horrors of war. Spielberg’s film is worth a watch just to see Bale come into his own as an actor.
Although Bale often seems to choose dark and challenging roles, he sometimes has a soft side. In 1994, he played Theodore Lawrence in “Little Women.” Wealthy but lonely Teddy strikes up a friendship with the four March sisters who live next door. The movie is heartwarming and poignant, and Bale shows range by playing a likeable, vulnerable character.
In 2000, Bale starred in “American Psycho.” Directed by Mary Harron, the psychological thriller draws its inspiration from Bret Easton Ellis’s famously shocking and controversial novel. Patrick Bateman is a wealthy executive whose dissatisfaction with life spirals out of control. While the film is undeniably disturbing, it also has a dark sense of satirical humor. Bale’s Bateman is ominous at times, yet also manages to be genuinely pitiable. Bale also embraces the movie’s twisted sense of satire.
Serious actors often prove themselves by changing themselves for their roles, physically as well as psychologically. Bale garnered plenty of attention for his role in “The Machinist” (2004). Playing an insomniac haunted by mysterious memories, Bale drastically altered his body. In the film, his usual handsomeness is gone, replaced by a stark, emaciated appearance. The psychological thriller is unsettling and complex in its own right. Bale’s willingness to shed 60 pounds is a sign of his unwavering dedication as an actor, and his acting in the movie is equally powerful.
In 2006, Bale worked with Christopher Nolan in “The Prestige.” He plays the role of a magician whose rivalry begins to take over his life. The film itself is restrained and carefully controlled, and Bale’s performance in the movie matches these traits. The same year, Bale appeared in “Rescue Dawn,” portraying a captured fighter pilot struggling to survive during the Vietnam War. Returning to his roots, Bale again captures the intense struggles of someone caught up in the tragedies of war.
In “3:10 to Yuma” (2007), Bale plays a quiet and humble man who winds up in unfortunate circumstances. Many of Bale’s characters are extreme, managing to stay at the dead center of the action. However, Bale’s role in “3:10 to Yuma” defies this trend. He proves that he does not necessarily need drama and passion to show off his acting skills. Rather, his role as an ordinary man draws on some of Bale’s more nuanced acting chops. The film is a unique addition to the line-up of Westerns, in part because of Bale’s performance.
During the late 2000s and early 2010s, Bale has come to be synonymous with Batman. When director Christopher Nolan decided to reboot the Batman franchise, he needed a gritty, haunted Bruce Wayne. Bale brought a level of humanity to a character that ran the risk of being campy, while also showing off the crusader’s dark side.
“Batman Begins” (2005) is when Bale found his footing as the iconic superhero. “The Dark Knight” (2008) is the film that shows the true range of Bale’s abilities. He turns in a performance that manages to stand out as nuanced and gripping, even against his wildly talented co-star. “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), the last film in the trilogy, gives Bale a chance to show off Batman’s complexity. Each of the three films is an intense and sleek superhero movie for a more adult audience. It is hard to imagine the films succeeding on the same level without Bale as the star.
Christian Bale’s talent for choosing serious, challenging roles and his talent as an actor make it likely that he will remain popular for many more years. It is possible that Bale’s very best films are still to come.