Tuesday, 30 November 2010
'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One' review: All's well that ends well?
I have never read, or even been tempted to read, a Harry Potter book. Nor have I enjoyed the series of films J.K Rowling's writing has inspired which having begun in 2001 with 'The Philosopher's Stone' - and due to conclude next year - now span (and for some possibly define) a cinema-going decade. For me there has always been something very twee about these stories - set within a boarding school for witches and wizards - and something incredibly establishment about their very existence and place in the "British" film industry. Worse still, it has always felt like the series' best ideas and characters had been stolen wholesale from other works: books by Roald Dahl, C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien. And with Warner Brothers having eschewed hiring Terry Gilliam (the author's publicly stated preferred choice) these uninspiring tales have also been beset by a succession of similarly uninspiring filmmakers.
'Home Alone' director Chris Columbus helmed the first two movies, making films of almost staggering blandness. Some brief respite was given to the series' in the form of the third outing, 'The Prisoner of Azkaban', as darling of the Mexican New Wave Alfonso Cuarón brought to that film a more naturalistic approach in the acting (especially in the film's young cast) as well as a darker colour palette and some more imaginative shot choices. Yet it was still ultimately a pretty poor film, still weighed down by interminably dull scenes of "Quidditch" and even featuring Lenny Henry. But whatever its flaws, the series' third chapter was enriched by Cuarón as director. Though it would be short lived, as soon Harry Potter was thrust firmly back into cinematic mediocrity once again with the Mike Newell directed fourth film boring me near to tears when I saw it at the cinema in 2005.
It is strange that having gone through three established film directors the series would find its salvation in the hands of a little known British TV director. David Yates, prior to directing the fifth Potter film, 2007's 'The Order of the Phoenix', was best known for directing edgy TV dramas 'State of Play', 'Sex Traffic' and 'The Girl in the Cafe'. It was the same sort of left-field logic that had led Warner Brothers to hire Cuarón off the back of his sexually explicit 'Y Tu Mamá También' and, as with that choice, it has proven to be inspired - though this wasn't evident right away. 'The Order of the Phoenix', still bound by the setting of Hogwarts school and its myriad of dreary lessons and irksomely quirky teachers, was only a marginal improvement on its forbears. It was actually with 'The Half-Blood Prince', the sixth film in the series, that Yates really turned things around.
'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' is relatively light on action. It is a slower, more character based film which found the leads - Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson - now able to act. It was intense and visceral in a way never before attempted by these films, and in a way missing from most modern kids films in general. There were more interesting characters and themes, as it looked at the school life of the series' arch-villain Tom Riddle (AKA Voldemort) and also made other perennial villains more human, such as Draco Malfoy, played by Tom Felton. Once a two-dimensional, snarling school bully, Draco was here portrayed as a troubled child in the middle of an identity crisis, torn apart as he struggled with the moral implications of his family's allegiance with "the dark Lord" and his growing unease at his own grave part in their evil schemes.
Yet even when these films were not terrible, they were forever bringing out the cynic and the pedant in me as a viewer. I was forever asking "why are they doing that?", "how come that's suddenly possible?" and "why didn't they think to do that two scenes ago?" My problem was often that the films' internal logic seemed inconsistent and muddled. Often Potter himself seemed like a, frankly, shit protagonist. He was forever being saved by some contrived deus ex machina (such as the magical sword at the end of film two) or by his teachers. He was always being told exactly what to do, every step of the way. For example, when in film four he has make a golden egg reveal a clue, it takes Robert Pattinson telling him to "try giving it a bath", followed by another character telling him to "try putting in into the water" when he gets there - so unable is he to make that logical leap. My girlfriend was always saying "it makes more sense in the books". But I don't care. These films should make sense in their own right, or else they are just expensive fan-service.
The reason I have chosen to begin my review of the latest installment, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One', with this account of my own history with these films is two-fold. Firstly, I wasn't reviewing films when these came out and I wanted to state my position on them here. Secondly, I thought it important to provide a context for my unabashed praise of this latest film. For in 'Deathly Hallows Part One' I have found a Potter film I can actually enjoy.
Never before have two films in the same franchise seemed so totally alien to each other as 'Philopher's Stone' and 'Deathly Hallows' must look placed side-by-side. (OK, maybe the Bond series has changed more over its near fifty years of being, but these Potter movies are direct sequels less than ten years apart.) 'Deathly Hallows Part One' is not a film in which Potter inflates his nasty auntie into a balloon or takes part in a "Triwizard Tournament" or tastes bogey flavoured magic sweeties. It is a film which opens on a scene of torture and murder (of a bound and weeping school teacher no less), in which one of Harry's friends is casually killed off screen and another dies bleeding in his arms. The first time we see Harry's friend Hermione Granger she is tearfully erasing herself from her parents' memory so as to keep them safe. Whilst the fourth film boasted Jarvis Cocker singing a song called "Do the Hippogriff", this seventh film sees Harry turn on a radio to hear "O Children" by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, to which he and Hermione temporarily relieve their gloom with a melancholic dance, in an emotionally charged scene which I'm told doesn't exist in the book. It's a moment which will probably be ignored for being in a Harry Potter blockbuster, but I feel a similar moment in a "serious" film would receive more attention.
If 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' was like a Famous Five story, then this new film feels like something out of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The bleak, recognisably English landscapes are desolate and our heroes are often alone, uncertain whether anyone they know has survived. There is precious little comedy relief in this chapter. Which is nice as the "gags" in previous Potter movies have been woeful. What lightness and humour there is comes from the central three characters friendship which seems more real then ever before - perhaps as a result of the fact that these child actors have genuinely grown up together (one of the series' real pleasures). Yates' Potter films have been enriched by their taking place in a more recognisable, and even banal, world. The last film saw Yates stage a deadly Voldemort attack on London's Millennium Bridge (a modern and lesser known landmark as of yet untouched by Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich) and similarly 'Deathly Hallows' presents a modern, lived-in and refreshingly normal picture of London - neither touristy or excessively grimy. Yates has realised that in making the "muggle" (non-magical) world less wondrous a place, the magic of Potter & co. is given room to be all the more exciting by contrast.
So it is that the chase sequence near the film's start is the most exciting bit of action from any chapter of the series. As Harry flips around a tunnel to dodge cars on his motorcycle (well, more accurately Hagrid's motorcycle - Harry is in the side-car) it is Harry and his friends integration into a more convincing "real world" setting that makes it work. There are also far fewer times when things are over-explained to us via Harry, or where the the heroes actions cease making sense and robbed of Dumbledore as a benevolent, omnipotent guide, it is up to Harry, Hermione and Ron to solve the film's problems. And as the stakes have never been higher (this is after all the first part of the series' finale) the film is also much more involving than those that came before.
It is rare to find a film series that actually grows up with its audience. When George Lucas made his much-maligned 'Star Wars' prequels, fans felt he'd infantilised the saga. Those films, with the slapstick comedy of Jar Jar Binks and an increased pandering to the "toyetic", certainly feel as though they are aimed at a young audience rather than the thirty-somethings who grew up with the original trilogy. In contrast, these films (I imagine thanks to the books) do seem to be going on a journey with their young audience. Children that started off with 'Philosopher's Stone' have a film in 'Deathly Hallows' that they can enjoy ten years on and which may actually frighten and excite them.
'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One' is in a different league to its predecessors. It's consistently tonally serious and dark, whereas even the last film would switch uneasily between tragedy and light-hearted comedy all in the space of a scene (note the sudden change from talking about a central character's murder to talking about Harry's latest crush in the final scene of 'Half-Blood Prince'). It also better develops its characters and benefits from a more interesting story with higher stakes. The distracting array of British actors hamming it up is also less of a problem here, as most of our time is spent in the company of the three children.
Perhaps my only real criticism is that it wouldn't work on its own: you need to have seen the other films and/or read the books to understand it. This is to be expected as it's a conclusion (or at least the beginning of one), but I would hesitate to recommend this film to newcomers or to label it any kind of classic. It will always be bound up with the other, less good films which have sadly already undermined this story. It is a shame then that it took four films before Yates took the reins. Although maybe some of this film's pleasure does come from its stark contrast with the earlier chapters - and with the Columbus years in particular. Perhaps it only works because those films exist: because the brightly lit, Christmas card aesthetic of the earlier efforts is there to be subverted in this way. Whatever the reason 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One' worked for me - a self-described Potterphobe - it did work. As a result I find myself in the unlikely position of looking forward to next year and 'Part Two'. Perhaps, as far as the Harry Potter movies are concerned, all's well that ends well.
'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One' is rated '12A' by the BBFC - for being bloody scary, I'd imagine.