So, I have just arrived back home from the cinema having seen “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.” In 2D, obviously: because that’s what they filmed it in. Before I talk about this film, and do a substantially smaller amount of moaning than you’re probably expecting me to do, I want to give a quick potted history (last pun, I promise) of my feelings concerning the film series so far. In order to do this, I’m going to separate out my opinions on Rowling’s novels from my opinions on the films adapted from them, and concentrate solely upon the latter. If I don’t do this, we’ll be here for a very, very long time.
One point of comparison I do wish to make, however, is that in both cases I think there has been a definite case of the immense positives being used to outweigh the negative. The novels developed into a rites of passage series, and have become beloved due to their representation, hidden symbolically within the fantasy adventure grand narratives, of the journey from childhood into adulthood, and they have to a degree inspired more young people to read, which is certainly no bad thing. The films have created a multitude of jobs both in front of and behind the camera, which has showcased the abilities of our considerable creative talents despite our pitiful lack of either a film industry or governmental support for such a body. These positives which have come from the “Harry Potter” series have in both cases been popularly strong enough to hide the fact that the seven instalments are variously deeply flawed in their execution and unoriginal in their conception. I accept that thanks to these films many great British actors have been kept in steady work for ten years, and that we now have the world’s most artistically sophisticated special effects industry, but I intend to judge these filmmaking efforts on merit alone.
I have disliked every film in the franchise so far for the following reasons, which go way beyond the commonly cited, and quite correct, deficiency that the three central performers are simply not good enough to carry the dramatic and emotional demands of the narratives. The major fault with the seven previous films is the complete and utter failure of screenwriter Steve Kloves to capture the tone, texture and spirit of the novels. In the earlier films, the sense of innocent wonder was sacrificed in favour of bloated and self-indulgent set pieces, which did little more than cash in on the strongly established iconography of the novels. The later films have strived for a darker and more adult tone, and whilst this ambition is to be commended the films actually go too far. The sense of fantasy and wonder persists in the novels even when events are at their darkest, whereas the films, in struggling to make a point, have rather missed the point. In the case of all the screenplays, Rowling’s sense of humour and camaraderie between an extensive but endearingly familiar galaxy of characters has been obliterated. The films have failed to capture the essence of the source material, and are hence bad adaptations. They are also bad adaptations in that the various directors of the films have not crafted works which match the imagination and the vision of how I perceived the novels in my head when reading them: they have unanimously failed to equal or surpass my personal interpretation and imaginative construction of the books. This point in part relies on the belief that in some cases a film can be superior to the novel upon which it’s based, two obvious examples being “The Godfather” and “The Shining,” but it works if you also believe a film can match the quality of its source by taking on a similar yet separate identity. The best example of this would be Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” films, which provide ample hints of the mythological linguistic and historical grandeur of Tolkien’s magnum opus without truly seeking to equal it, instead endeavouring to become outstandingly rousing and spectacular heroic romances, and succeeding admirably. In the case of the “Harry Potter” films, the mistake was made on day one, when Rowling and producer David Hayman’s desires for Terry Gilliam to direct the first film were ignored. Christopher Columbus took the helm, and his realisation of Rowling’s universe fell short, and set a template in which every subsequent film would be constrained and doomed to similarly fall short. Imagine how truly ambitious, powerful and majestic these films would have been in Gilliam’s hands.
All thoughts about the previous seven films aside, I cannot stress enough that I went into this eighth and final piece with an open mind, as I believe one should approach all films in this manner, and this is what I thought…
It’s pretty good. In fact, it’s very good.
The reason it’s very good is primarily because it’s an ending, a two hour catharsis and a denouement which is concluding not the cliff-hanger of the previous film but the entire eight-film, twenty-odd hour series. The ending has to be, along with the opening, the best part of any work of dramatic fiction: if the start’s bad it’ll take you forever to win back an audience’s trust and attention, and a poor ending will sour everything good that has gone before. Rowling is actually profoundly good at masterminding climaxes: even when her novels have been heavily padded with incidental narrative threads as opposed to an actual plot, her endings are consistently imaginative, thrilling and satisfying. So too is the case with this new film, yet this is also part of the problem: it’s a very satisfying and emotionally draining climax, but it’s only about a third of the novel, and hence a third of a film to be perfectly frank, even if that third is impressive. We are therefore in a position as an audience that unless you’ve just finished reading the last novel in its entirety you will have no idea what’s happening in this film, and so it very much plays to my notion that passion for these films is merely a manifestation of extended passion for the novels: they are made with Rowling’s readers in mind. I didn’t completely follow the plot, and nor did Ralph Fiennes, even though he’s the main villain. In a recent radio interview, he admitted when questioned about the Elder Wand, what Stanislavsky would terms his character’s super objective in the drama, he didn’t have a clue what the point of this artefact it. Even the baddy doesn’t get it.
What the film does allow for is the proper development and realisation of that third of the novel, and having done away with Rowling’s padding and narrative excesses the film finally has space to adequately realise the events of the novel in an original and exciting way. Yet the undeniable power of the cathartic film disguises the fact that this is but a fraction of the story, and it can only be properly assessed when combined with Part One. Truly, the separation of this into two films allows for a breath-taking finale, but is still a blatantly and disappointingly greedy and vulgar commercial tactic.
The film is successful in that it isolates the best of Rowling’s work and explores and develops this minimal amount of material to its full cinematic potential. Nevertheless, there is the same tonal deficiency present in the film as in the previous works: the tension inherent in the admirable yet flawed juxtaposition with gritty and serious direction with the fundamental silliness of what’s happening on screen. The great strength of the veritable smorgasbord of British acting talent on show in the films is also a great weakness, with the comedy in seeing each fantastic character actor reduced to a token fifteen seconds in each film, and the absurdity of what they are doing, overshadowing their mere presence. In this film it’s in the form of Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman having a wand fight (even on paper it sounds funny), and in the previous films was in just how ridiculous the manner of actor they were recruiting was. Theatrical actors come with a baggage of hyperbolic grandeur and high camp to ensure they fit right into the proceedings, and even someone like Gary Oldman is blockbuster friendly enough to get away with it, but when the last film saw Peter Mullan brandishing his wand like a Glaswegian thug with a piece of broken bottle it all got a bit too hysterical for me.
This is especially true when one considers just how dark Peter Yates has made these latter films. The merger of dark and fantastic is most effective in this latest film. Early scenes of mooted and intense interrogations which round off the cliff-hanger from the last film, and for which Warwick Davies and John Hurt deserve genuine credit, are really nervy and engaging pieces of theatre. So too is the grey palette of a pre-titles scene, in which Hogwarts is surrounded by ethereal, wispy and menacing spectres, its students marshalled into grim and foreboding columns, with Snape watching grimly from a castle window, is visually and tonally fantastic. The bloodied corpses and splatters on Voldemort’s feet after he massacres the goblins of Gringotts is really creepy and unnerving, as is the Lynchian glaring smile Fiennes pulls when flying around the battlements in a death embrace with Harry. The death of Snape, of which we view only shadows against a frosted pane of glass and the cruelly ruthless lightning-fast lunges of a snake, and hear sickening and realistic sound effects, is quite mesmerising. In fact, Alan Rickman brings extraordinary gravitas and quality to his performance in this film. From day one he gave the best performances in these films, and we’ve sort of forgotten about that over the years, but my god does he remind us how good he is in this one. Moments of this film lapse into the tonal ridiculousness of previous episodes, yet the control is far better here, as well it should be: it is the filmmakers’ eighth stab at the cherry.
I liked this film, and I enjoyed this film, and ultimately I have been hoisted by my own petard in that what’s good about this film effectively overshadows what’s weak about it. It is nonsensical if you don’t read the book immediately before going in, it isn’t a full narrative but rather an isolation of the latter and superior part of a narrative, occasionally the knife-edge separating the dark from the dim-witted wavers, various events have not been executed well enough to match the vision in my head, and the tone of Rowling’s work still fundamentally eluded the filmmakers. Hence it is, I propose, only blind faith and love of Rowling’s novels that so endear these films to the fans. But none of this matters, because surrounded by a summer of inevitably feeble and infantile and derivative blockbusters this film is at least attempting to be more intelligent, adult and ambitious than standard fare, and simply because it has isolated and fully realised a satisfying narrative conclusion the film itself is a rewarding and fitting end to the series. It’s a shame the series wasn’t good enough to merit such a devastating catharsis.