A Little Chaos (2014)

I could glibly try and claim this is the best drama about gardening released this year, but that wouldn’t really be much help would it? Certainly the subject matter is niche — aside from The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), I can’t think of any films primarily dealing with the creation of a garden (in this case, the Bosquet des Rocailles, or Salle de Bal, at the Palace of Versailles). Of course, it’s really about plenty of other things, like the tentative love affair between Kate Winslet’s Sabine du Barra and Matthias Schoenaert’s André Le Nôtre (the chief designer of the gardens at Versailles, a real historical figure), or the fluid movement of relationships and the shadings of class within the French court of the 17th century. I’m not sure how much of this detail is true to the period — Sabine is a fictional character, and Winslet seems all too English, though the garden Sabine is working on is real — but it allows for some lovely little vignettes, as when Sabine interacts with the King (Alan Rickman) incognito as if he were a fellow gardener. There’s a smaller role for Stanley Tucci as a prominent nobleman within the French court, another excellent reminder of his talent for stealing scenes, while Helen McCrory rounds out the ensemble as Le Nôtre’s jealous and unfaithful wife. As director, Rickman certainly manages to round up a good cast (as you’d expect), so even if the film sometimes seems slight, it’s never anything less than enjoyable to watch.

A Little Chaos film posterCREDITS
Director Alan Rickman; Writer Allison Deegan; Cinematographer Ellen Kuras; Starring Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Helen McCrory; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 29 April 2015.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

“It all ends.” By this point, the eighth and final film in this massively popular franchise, this was all the posters needed to say — indeed, I scrolled through many pages of images trying to find any with the movie’s title on it. And I suppose you might say that I was disappointed by this finale, but in truth it has everything I imagine the audience wants in this kind of thing. I can hardly, in fact, suggest that anything else would have been suitable. It’s just that, having invested so much time over so many films in these characters and the actors who play them, the kind of frenetically-paced action setpieces and big emotion-laden sentimentality that HP7b delivers feels just a mite generic. Still, aside from a humorous possibility held out by the very final scene of a ‘Harry Potter: The Next Generation’, it does at least deliver on the poster’s promise. It all ends.*

Trying to rehash the plot at this point feels like an exercise in futility, though in fact this film was my first encounter with the universe of Harry Potter (aside of course from its fandom’s appearances in various media reports over the previous decade or more). I don’t imagine that at this point anyone is going to start with this instalment, and from personal experience I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. Distinguished character actors from the previous seven films show up here, often in shots so brief as to be easily missed in the general tumult, though seeing them creates a little frisson of recognition and warmth of feeling (my favourite was Maggie Smith magically rousing into action the stone soldiers in Hogwarts’ façade). Not to mention that what feels like the entire series’ emotional climax — the point at which the links between the hero and his antagonist Voldemort become clear — is also completely incomprehensible without at least an understanding of the “horcrux” concept, and certainly not communicable in whispers from one’s partner in the darkness of a cinema.

These are the film’s highlights. Elsewhere, though, as I’ve mentioned, it becomes a little generically deadening, particularly a vast massed battle scene set at Hogwarts involving plentiful destruction that takes up most of the film’s second hour. There’s all kinds of running about, a bit of slow-motion, and loads of special effects. There’s rousing, grandstanding moments of brazen emotionalism (reader, I shed a few tears) and moments where the protagonists stop to share their feelings. I may come across a bit cynical here, but I can concede that these have I suppose been earned, and did not at least overwhelm the narrative.

I daresay, then, that this is the point where I should be attempting a grand summation of the Harry Potter film experience. If like a lot of modern blockbuster series it somewhat resembles a rollercoaster ride, then at least it is backed up by some strong writing and tightly-structured character development. On the one hand, Rowling has clearly embraced the hoary old archetypes of the genre — wands, pointy hats, broomsticks, and all that spell casting ‘abracadabra’ (sorry, “avara kedavra”) gubbins — but what I like about the films, not being familiar at all with the books, is that it harnesses this essentially childish nonsense world to a distinctly darker-hued palette of gloom and chiaroscuro (okay not so much in the first two films, but from Azkaban onwards at least). There are moments of levity (largely in the sixth film) but few are the times when the lowering clouds part — and when they do (as in the opening of that same film), it is as likely to be to better set off the inky black messengers of Voldemort’s destructive wrath sweeping across the sky.

As for the characters (Harry, Hermione and Ron of course, along with their more prominent classmates like Neville, Draco, Luna and Ginny), they convincingly progress from chirpy tweens to emo-wracked teenagers to ultimately well-adjusted young adults, in a quite literal coming of age for both them and the actors portraying them. After all, they pull through morbid fixations (tests to their mortality in the fourth film), the depths of depression and the awkwardness of socialising (in the fifth), and a paralysis of uncertainty about what to do when finally free from the guidance of adults (in the first part of this finale).

I find, in the end, that I am rather fond of this world through spending time in it, but then opening oneself up to any ongoing series can often have this effect. The narrative doesn’t make any formal demands on the viewer (it’s all straightforwardly and linearly plotted), and the universe has a cosy reassuring quality to it — sure there are unexpected deaths, but they are all motivated and explained within the narrative. Ultimately, after all, this is a straightforward battle between Good and Evil and as viewers/readers we are conditioned to know how those generically turn out. So (and here we come back to my rating of this final film), finding out quite how things conclude is not in the end the most enjoyable aspect of the series. Instead, it’s in the journey, and thankfully for the most part that has been a pleasurable one to take.

Footnote: * If in fact it turns out that in the fullness of time, for whatever reason, the franchise is brought back to life, whether for sequels, prequels or reboots, I reserve the right to rewrite this review in the most excoriating terms.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 film posterCREDITS
Director David Yates; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Eduardo Serra; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Tuesday 26 July 2011 (and on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 7 January 2014).

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (aka Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 2001)

It’s coming up to the Christmas season, so it seems like as fitting a time as any to kick off watching this series of fantasy kids’ films (even if the choice wasn’t entirely under my control).


Is this really the first instalment of a much-beloved modern classic? To be fair, I could have asked the same thing after watching The Fast and the Furious, made the same year, but I came to have an affection for that series, so I may yet come to feel similarly about this one. After all, the whole thing had largely passed me by (I was 24 when this movie came out), though living in London I can watch for many uninterrupted minutes the enthusiastic people who still, even now, queue up to get their photos taken by the really rather naff half-trolley in a random brick wall labelled Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross station. Until now, the only film I had seen of the series was the very last one (half of one, really, wasn’t it?) when my wife took me along a few years back. Well, now she’s making me watch the whole thing, and on the basis of the first instalment, I wouldn’t have picked it as a world-beating crowd-pleaser.

That all said, I can hardly deny it has its pleasures. For example, there’s an occasional sense of wonder at this act of wholesale world creation, even if it’s a patchwork quilt of various eras and designs: the street scene early on presents a jumble of different eras all smashed together with a Dickens-by-way-of-Muppets Christmas Carol aesthetic; there are grand old Elizabethan houses and mediæval castles; and a Victorian train journey peopled by spiffing what-ho Famous Five public school archetypes. There’s some great character acting in the minor roles; basically the entire supporting cast is made up of venerable British acting talent, with all-too-brief walk-on parts for actors as distinguished as John Hurt, Richard Griffiths, Zoë Wanamaker and Julie Walters (those are just the ones I can recall off the top of my head). Thankfully, we get to see a bit more of the wonderful Alan Rickman, truly a master of cinematic face acting (with a major in grimacing), and the underrated Ian Hart, both teachers at the grand Hogwarts school for wizards.

The main cast, though, at least look the part, even if Robbie Coltrane’s northern accent is rather faltering at times. It’s probably not fair to criticise the kids, as it’s their first feature film after all, but then they are required to do a fair bit of running around and recounting plot points to one another in increasingly shrill voices, so they do the best they can. Rupert Grint gets all the comedy pratfalls, while Emma Watson gets the best character, the determinedly swotty and self-important Hermione. For me, it’s the rather leaden dialogue that these characters have to deliver which is the film’s chief weakness, but then I daresay it needs to be comprehensible to a wide range of viewers after all.

Truth be told, even though I watched it last night, and despite its extensive running time, I’m having trouble recalling any particular details of the thing. It passes by in a likeable haze of familiar faces, referential set design, recycled plots and (I’m guessing, given there was still plenty of minor stuff I didn’t quite understand) in-jokes for the book’s readers. It’s never precisely clear what the stakes are for the characters, but it all cleaves to familiar storytelling tropes, so knowing precisely what the philosopher’s stone of the title does, or why it matters, isn’t really so important. And at this point, we know our heroes must prevail, so the key is not what happens at the end as how it all gets there. Thankfully, despite being slightly plodding at times, it’s mostly an enjoyable journey.

Next: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone film posterCREDITS
Director Chris Columbus; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer John Seale; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 17 December 2013.