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 Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

It seems nowadays like almost a cliché of the tentpole blockbuster adapted from a popular source text, that the final book will be split into more than one film — as if it’s just so sensible a commercial manoeuvre that why would we question it? It happened with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (2011/12), and is set to happen with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (2014/15) — and then there’s The Hobbit (2012/13/14), which has been split into three — so it’s worth recalling that before Deathly Hallows there hadn’t been much of a precedent for this kind of thing (Kill Bill, perhaps, though that wasn’t from a novel). Wanting to be faithful to the text and make the inbuilt fans of the franchise happy, and wanting to create a good cohesive piece of narrative cinema, can often pull filmmakers in two directions, so splitting a text can also be a means to ensuring there’s enough time to do justice to the author’s intentions (see also: making a miniseries). And it’s true that previous instalments have had so much plot in them, that just trying to keep up with what’s going on is quite an exercise. So going into the denouement to this wizarding saga, the producers have decided two films are necessary, and who am I to argue?

What this means in terms of the final film is that the plot’s longueurs are preserved, though I don’t mean this as a criticism necessarily. It’s rare in a blockbuster for the action to slow down, but here it does on a few occasions: at one point for an extended animated sequence narrating the backstory to an arcane symbol, and at another for almost half an hour, as the protagonists try and figure out what they need to do, albeit set against some ruggedly beautiful scenic backdrops. It allows some of the interpersonal relationships to be teased out — the sense of resentment that Ron (Rupert Grint) has built up towards Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), and particularly Harry’s relationship with the more intelligent Hermione (Emma Watson). And when they do all figure things out a bit better, it makes them stronger as a group — necessary if they are to face up to the final, looming battle with Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

But despite the tangled interpersonal web of the film, there’s also a relative freedom, in the sense that it is set more in nature than previous instalments. Sure, there are still hideaways like the Blacks’ home in London, and an enjoyable caper sequence set in the labryinthine underbelly of the Ministry of Magic (set up by the introduction of Bill Nighy as a new Minister), but elsewhere the film sets itself in the wide expanses of various far-flung locales: an undulating beach; a rocky coastline; a woodland clearing; Lovegood’s little cottage out in the middle of a plain. That freedom to run — whether in chase of or in flight from foes — is captured by the poster, a headlong rush by the characters that pushes the quest forward to the discovery of further horcruxes that will weaken Voldemort, but it’s a feeling that in the film is in tension with those scenes of the protagonists’ confusion, doubt and stasis.

At some level, I’m not surprised to see contemporary reviews exhibiting some disappointment with this instalment, given the way it slows things down in anticipation of a breathless conclusion still a year away. However, in retrospect and in the knowledge that I’m able to immediately move on to the second half, I really appreciate the way that Deathly Hallows Part 1 paces itself and gives more time to the central characters we’ve been following for so long; few other characters make much of a mark, as their illustrious actors are shuffled off into what are basically cameos. If it represents the confused calm before a gathering and inevitable storm, it’s a pause for breath that’s richly deserved by this point.

Next (and Last): Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 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, Bill Nighy; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 1 January 2014.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

I suppose as a reviewer you get to the point with a long-running series where you run out of useful things to really say about it, or maybe it’s just because I’ve been writing these things every other day for the past few weeks. This sixth instalment of J.K. Rowling’s teenage wizarding series is every bit as well-crafted as the previous film, and follows in much the same vein. If anything it encompasses some even darker textures, though these are counterbalanced by some of the deftest touches of humour so far in the series, and while it draws back somewhat from the previous film’s political worldview, there’s enough here that’s enchanting.

The darkness is introduced right from the outset with an attack on London, destroying the Millennium Bridge, as well as one of the shops on the hidden little Dickensian street of the alternative wizarding world. The film closes, too, with the death of a key character, and in between is all manner of demonic details occasioned by the return of Voldemort, although some are related to the book belonging to the ‘Half-Blood Prince’ which Harry discovers. The final chapters to the saga are also set up by the revelation that Voldemort has concealed his soul in seven magical items (or “horcruxes” as they are known here), which must be destroyed in order to finally defeat him.

The darkness is of a piece with the gloomily gothical world conjured up by Rowling’s fiction and which has been elaborated in all the successive films. More interesting is the appearance of rather more levity than we’ve had so far, with all manner of situational comedy and throwaway lines from the teenage leads as the sub-plots relating to their various romantic connections are played out. Ron becomes an unlikely centre of attentions to several female characters, while Harry starts to develop feelings for Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright).

Elsewhere the acting continues to be strong, with new recruit for this episode being the bumbling professor played by Jim Broadbent, a pleasant enough caricature but without some of the depth of previous faculty staff members (he brings to mind Kenneth Branagh’s turn more than anything else). If I liked the Half-Blood Prince in the end, perhaps a lot has to do with the way it builds on the previous episodes and sets up the denouement, and with my own greater investment in this world after five previous instalments. In any case, it’s put together nicely, and carries the viewer through with the deftest of touches.

Next: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince film posterCREDITS
Director David Yates; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Jim Broadbent, Tom Felton; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 1 January 2014.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

I am unfamiliar enough with the Harry Potter saga that I miss plenty of references. For example, the pseudonym “Padfoot” is used a few times in this film to refer to Gary Oldman’s character Sirius Black, and harks back to the names on the magical map seen in the third film, but none of this is explained and I had to ask my wife to fill me in (for others in my position, the names refer to the four friends who created the map — “Padfoot” being Black, “Moony” being David Thewlis’s Lupin, “Wormtail” Timothy Spall’s Peter, and “Prongs” Harry’s now-dead father, the first two of whom return here as the core of a sort of wizarding resistance movement). Likewise, I wonder if this film is remembered for being the one in which Harry gets his first kiss (an incident very quickly brushed past), or maybe for its strong undertones of teenage ennui and moodiness? However, if it’s remembered for anything, it’s surely for the way it links in the developing story of Lord Voldemort’s return with the wider universe within which Potter resides. As such, it’s also the film where author J.K. Rowling’s political allegorising starts becoming particularly evident.

If it wasn’t yet clear what register the Potter universe works in, the opening few moments make it clear, starting as they do in bright, garish sunshine. It’s almost shocking, but it doesn’t take long for the grey lowering clouds to roll in, and we’re set for another few hours of gothic-tinged teenaged sorcery. If we hadn’t been following the series (and its actors) from the outset, we would still know right away how old they were from the hormonally self-inflated sense of angst that the first act of this film indulges in, as Harry mopes about filled with (terribly adolescent) ennui about his nascent life’s twists and turns that even Hermione and Ron are unable to snap him out of. To be fair, he’s been expelled from Hogwarts (though that’s revoked fairly swiftly), but the doubts about his character remain throughout the film, as the rest of his class are divided as to whether he is telling the truth about Cedric’s death and Voldemort’s return at the end of the previous film. What’s interesting is that Rowling’s plot links in Harry’s emotional turbulence not with adolescence but with the effect of his encounter with Voldemort, whose presence looms throughout like Harry’s shadowy alter ego. There are some new characters here too, against whom Harry’s ennui is played off, mostly notably the serenely detached Luna, who shares with him a certain morbidity. On the side of the good guys is the titular Order arrayed around Michael Gambon’s wizened Dumbledore (even in a photo of them in their youth, he sports a long white beard), a revolutionary cell operating from a magically-hidden home on a well-to-do London street.

Indeed, as I mentioned above, what’s most interesting is the wider political ramifications that are opened up by Harry’s dalliance with Voldemort. Finally we begin to see what’s at stake for the entire society, as the Ministry of Magic takes on a more central role (with the Order of the Phoenix in opposition). At one level, it’s clearly dominated by Conservative ideology, and if the film’s set design and costumes hark to the wartime era of the 1930s and 1940s, then that makes the Minister something of a Neville Chamberlain figure, (unwittingly perhaps) appeasing the dark forces of Voldemort’s Hitler. Indeed, as my wife has suggested, Sirius Black and his family are somewhat analogous to the aristocratic Mitfords, with Sirius as the revolutionary left-wing Jessica to his unhinged newly-introduced sister Bellatrix’s Nazi/Voldemort-sympathising Unity. (The latter is played by Helena Bonham Carter, putting in as restrained a performance as ever, i.e. not even a bit.) Even the Potter world’s newspaper, the Daily Prophet, has more than a little of the bitter tabloid muck-raking of the Daily Mail. Then again, the government’s self-important representative at Hogwarts, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), has more in common with Margaret Thatcher, so the historical parallels aren’t precise. Certainly, though, you don’t get the sense that Rowling has much love for the Tories.

None of this would matter a whole lot if the film were badly made, but I think the producers have got everything down to an art by this point, and even a change of screenwriter doesn’t seem to have dented its forward momentum. (The director and cinematographer have also changed once again, but that’s been a regular occurrence up to now, though as it happens David Yates helms all the remaining films.) There’s still a lot of plot to get through, but things are rather less convoluted now that we have a proper evil antagonist to deal with, even if he still seems to be more of an oneiric than a corporeal presence at this point. Many of the character actors we’ve been introduced to up until now show up, though some (like David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs, and Emma Thompson’s divination teacher Sybill) are little more than walk-on cameos. Still, it’s a solid lead in to the surely cataclysmic denouement to the series.

Next: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film posterCREDITS
Director David Yates; Writer Michael Goldenberg (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Imelda Staunton, Gary Oldman; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 30 December 2013.