20 hours of Harry Potter #3: a review of the film series

by David Larsen / 18 August, 2011
In the third of four posts, David Larsen discusses The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-blood Prince
Part one of this review here. Part two here.

Courtesy reminder: all of the following blithely assumes you've read Harry Potter, watched Harry Potter, or are happy to be comprehensively spoilered. (We need a better verb. Despoiled?)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Before we began our one-week rewatch, I would have said this was my favourite of the films. I remember telling friends excitedly that there was finally a Potter movie that worked from start to finish: a streamlined, self-contained fantasy action drama. The astonishing thing was that it should be the movie of the longest and flabbiest of the books, the first one written after the film series had got off the ground, and the first to feel like a slog for much of its length. It was like seeing a hippo turn into a greyhound.

Or at least, so I thought at the time. In retrospect, confronted with the longest children's book ever published, Yates and first-time Potter writer Michael Goldenberg were more or less forced to think laterally rather than literally, and it's a book that begs to be trimmed. An easy job disguised as an impossible job: the very best way to come aboard the franchise. And look who comes aboard with them. Imelda Staunton's Dolores Umbridge is the single best character in any of the films; there are better characters in the books, but it's the juiciest part in the film series, and Staunton knows exactly what to do with it. From her pink woolly cardigan to her prim little laugh, Umbridge (it's one of the great villainous names of all time) is so perfectly, ridiculously pleased with herself that it takes a while to realise she isn't a figure of fun. The scene in which she tortures Harry, looking him calmly in the eye and explaining that he knows, really, that he deserves it, is the most frightening one in the series. This is what evil looks like, children. Not a nasally challenged bald guy with a snake fixation: a well dressed, matronly figure who collects cute kitten pictures and believes without question that everything she does to you is for the best. Umbridge briefly goes by the title Hogwarts High Inquisitor, but that isn't the main reason kids who've seen this film will think of her when they read about the Inquisition.

The other new character is Luna Lovegood, played by Evanna Lynch, who'd never appeared on screen when she beat out every other hopeful at the auditions. Luna is a problem for the film, in that she's attractive, kind, likeable, and gets far more quiet moments with Harry than Cho Chang, the girl Harry's supposed to be in love with. That relationship doesn't work as written by Rowling (who writes romance like a 14-year-old boy worried his friends will think he's gone soft), and it doesn't really work here, largely because Lynch is so good, and because Luna seems to occupy the place in the film where Cho needs to stand. But aside from that, she's a wonderful addition to the cast: the first teen who comes on board knowing how to act, rather than learning in front of our eyes. In that sense, she personifies the film, which, uniquely among the first five Potters, needs virtually no excuses made for it. Yates, who had a strong TV background but had never directed a cinematic feature before, seems to arrive with a fully formed understanding of how to turn books into good films.

It's visible from our very first glimpse of Harry, walking through long, sun-bleached grass. The camera is looking up at him, and moving at a tangent to his line of walk: the shot only lasts a few seconds, but it's dynamic, and the straw colour of the grass is subdued compared to the settings the films tend to favour. It conveys Harry's mood in the wake of Cedric Diggory's murder, but more than that, it looks different. The subliminal feel is of looking through new eyes. Or, to switch body part metaphors, of being in good hands. And we are. Harry starts this film walking alone. He ends it at the head of a group of friends, all walking in the same direction. It's such a simple thing, but it contains the whole film. Note first that Yates is smart enough not to despise simplicity, and second, that this film is organised around a central idea capable of being simply expressed.

Yates focuses in on the most important strand in the book, which also happens to be the most film-friendly. (Or Goldenberg does; or perhaps it should be "Yates and Goldenberg do"; I wish I knew more about their working relationship, but I do observe that the things I like about this film persist after Goldenberg leaves the series.) Harry, having had an appalling experience none of his friends shared, is feeling isolated and angry. (Radcliffe is good at isolated and angry. More precisely, he's good at intense. He can turn himself on and off very effectively. What he can't do is adjust the volume or, outside a very narrow band of happy/furious/confused, change the channel.) Being angry, he turns his isolation into a point of pride. The film is about his friends' attempts, eventually successful, to get him to see that he needs their help, and that they need his: an idea which you'd only have to oversell very slightly to reduce the film to a happy-clappy Hollywood Hallmark card. Yates leaves it slender and unobtrusive enough that it merely serves as a thread through the book's maze. The montages in which Harry trains the newly formed "Dumbledore's Army" while Umbridge extends her influence at the school are fast moving, sophisticated, often funny, and they feel fresh. None of the earlier films manages to convey so much information so cleanly.

The film's streamlining of the story does cause one major blemish, which I hadn't remembered. Umbridge ultimately gets her comeuppance from a group of enraged centaurs, after the government she represents enacts a series of racist laws restricting the rights of sentient non-humans. These laws barely make it into the film - one of the swirls of newspaper headlines that Yates uses to keep us abreast of affairs outside the school includes a line about centaur unrest, but it flashes by pretty fast - so when the centaurs attack, it has a deus ex machina feel. What's up with those horse guys? Never mind, that's Umbridge out of the way, on to the big fight scene! Staunton's knit-wear Nazi deserved a less arbitrary-seeming downfall.

But compare that big final fight scene, and especially the culminating duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort, with the clunky big set pieces of the earlier films, which so often seemed to be about throwing dragons around the place just to show the effects budget off to the max. Here the action is fast, fluid and above all visually lucid. A single example: when Voldemort shatters all the glass in the giant Ministry of Magic foyer and hurls it in splinters at Dumbledore and Harry, Dumbledore throws up a shield which transforms the barrage into sand as it passes through. It's a striking image - impending death turning into one of the icons of lifelessness, a mini-desert showering down around Dumbledore's feet - and it makes literal as well as figurative sense, because glass, of course, is made from sand. This isn't how the fight goes in the book; Yates and his team have worked out a sequence of attacks and counter-attacks that follow a purely visual logic, requiring no dialogue, no explanations, just an audience with wide open eyes.

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007), directed by David Yates.

Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince

Hogwarts under Umbridge isn't Hogwarts. In the seventh film we won't see the school at all, and in the eighth, Voldemort's lieutenants will take over as teachers, encouraging senior students to practice dark magic on first years, after which the final battle will level the place. This is the last of the films in which the world's premiere school of witchcraft and wizardry is itself: the English boarding school reimagined as combined surrogate family, holiday camp and training ground for superheroes. If you want evidence that nostalgia is a form of insanity, consider this: I could not have enjoyed Yates's version of Hogwarts as much as I did without the sense that I was being granted a last glimpse of a place I'd come to know and love, even as I was simultaneously experiencing the pleasure of finally seeing the school done right, after all those irritating earlier attempts. This pang of regret at losing something that drove you crazy while you were living through it is the essence of the school-leaver's experience, so you could argue that Yates, in pulling our feelings into synch with his characters', has managed to turn the weaknesses of the first four films into a retrospective strength. "I never realised how beautiful this place was," Harry says to Hermione just before the credits roll. It would be a hokey choice for a closing line, except that it feels earned.

Harry is standing on the battlements as he says that line, looking out at the castle and its wide, wild grounds - at once the perfect location for a fantasy school, and one that tells you not to think too hard about Rowling's world. The despised orphan boy gets to go live in a castle, with the great wizard in the high tower and the kindly gamekeeper in the cottage nearby and the monsters in the surrounding forest: it's all very Grimm brothers. The reason it's all very Grimm brothers is that castles began receding into the romantic past the day after cannons were invented, stone walls being an effective defence only if your enemy can't bombard you with high speed flying rocks; and in Rowling's version of history the wizards have had far more effective artillery-equivalents than cannons for longer than Hogwarts has existed. It isn't the castle that keeps Voldemort's army out (briefly) in the final movie, it's magic. So what's the point of all those draughty stone corridors, exactly? If you just liked the look, wouldn't you keep the outer shell and put something better designed for living in inside it, using the same sort of TARDIS magic as the Weasleys' tent?

Never mind. The old pile does look pretty. At several points in this film the camera roves around it in long, sinuous takes that invite us to notice what a lot goes on in a school: more than any one person could keep track of. Though Harry's chief job this time is to act as our surrogate, watching other people and trying to figure out what they're doing and why, Yates lets us see more than he does; this is as close as the series comes to a film in which Harry is a minor character. In one particularly lovely shot, he sits with Hermione at the base of one of the school towers, comforting her. The camera rises and rotates, and halfway up the tower we get a glimpse of Ron and his new girlfriend (hence the need to comfort Hermione; Emma Watson is great in this scene). The camera keeps moving, still rising but now drifting away sideways, and above and behind the tower we see Draco Malfoy, staring blindly out over the rooftops.

In any of the previous films, Malfoy, were he granted five whole seconds of screen time to himself, would have used them to glower hatefully down at Harry, there being only the one tune in his song book, "hateful person who hates Harry and is hateful about it". Tom Felton, who plays him, would have worked the moment like a pantomime villain on hard boil, sneering and smirking and maybe pouting a little, because in those early films he was a truly wretched actor. Not that he would have been given the chance; little as Rowling does with Malfoy in the books, the films do a lot less. It's a pleasant shock to find him suddenly promoted to Harry's opposite number, a boy required by his mentor to shoulder an adult burden, struggling under the weight and pushing the film's plot forwards in the process. Somewhere along the way Felton has gone from wretched to halfway competent; and if that sounds like faint praise, consider what a leap it is, and the damage bad acting can do to a good story. Competence is all the film needs in this particular role, which is not a testing one, but it needs it absolutely.

For some really good acting, we've got Jim Broadbent playing Horace Slughorn: a typically inspired Rowling name, though in this case the personality it deftly sketches for us is not one I could get enthusiastic about, before I watched Broadbent fill him out. Slughorn is a slimy bon vivante whose virtues are mostly a side-effect of his vices; he's too timid and too lazy to be evil, but too selfish and too greedy to be good. After Umbridge he seems very low rent. That's what this film's more relaxed ensemble story needs; bringing in a new personality as strong as Umbridge's would use up all the available oxygen, and Slughorn's comfortable relationship with his own shallowness lets us see what a great craftsman Broadbent can be. His best and most complex moment is well calculated, in that it's also the one that matters most for the plot: the one where, slightly drunk, Slughorn tells Harry, who has been hounding him for information about Voldemort's time at the school, about a gift Harry's mother gave him, and the day he learned she was dead. A foolish old man, brought to the brink of taking a very slight personal risk not by principle, but by sentiment and alcohol: Broadbent lets his face relax into a baby's look of hurt wonder at the failure of the world to keep his golden girl alive, and it's entirely moving without being at all likeable. Daniel Radcliffe, trying to show us Harry taking in this nugget of precious information about the mother he never knew while simultaneously turning the screws on the only man who knows Voldemort's secret weakness, is well out of his depth; he can do misty-eyed, but he can't get his voice to suggest it's a testing moment for him. Reaching for grief and conviction, all he comes up with is loss-inflected anger, which unfortunately sounds a lot like petulance.

Harry knows all the right things to say to get the information he needs in this scene, because he's riding high on a luck potion. The moment just after he knocks the liquid luck back and just before he goes looking for Slughorn is Radcliffe's other acting nadir for the film: as he drinks it the camera tilts up and rotates our point of view right over the top of his head, suggesting the world has just flipped 180 degrees, and Radcliffe tries to give Harry a sunny-stoned voice and expression, to match his abrupt shift in perspective. He tries so hard. Unhappily for him there's a comparison fresh in our minds: a couple of scenes earlier, Ron has also been dosed with a potion, in his case a love potion, and the idiot mooncalf expression with which Rupert Grint gets this across is priceless. As with a lot of Grint's best moments, it's a very broad bit of work, but it's what the scene asks for, and he delivers the goods.

Great happiness: I'd forgotten there was a quidditch match in this film. We haven't seen one since Prisoner of Azkaban, and none of those early ones pleased me very much. The reason, I realise now, is that in the books Rowling makes her absurd game so real, and at the same time manages to use it as a handy venue for story-advancing events; whereas in the films there's mostly been time only for attending to the story. Philosopher's Stone: Harry's broomstick tries to buck him off. (It's Quirrel, trying to kill him.) Chamber of Secrets: the rogue bludger breaks his arm. (It's Dobby, trying to scare him away from Hogwarts before the basilisk can kill him.) Azkaban: the dementors attack during the game. (It's, um, the dementors. They're just not very nice.) Film, once you solve the tricky problem of actually sitting someone on a moving broomstick (ouch), can make the dream of flying seem real, and I've always wanted to see a quidditch game that felt like a game, rather than a modified fight scene. The flying has never been allowed to be the main point, before, but here, the only issue at stake is - surely not? - whether or not the match goes well for Gryffindor, and in particular for Ron, who's been having a crisis of confidence. Yes: we're allowed to take an interest in the game purely on its own terms. The camera follows flyers round the arena in smooth, fast-rushing motion, until Ron breaks in from out of shot, cutting across our path several times to block goals. The game nets him a groupie who quickly becomes his first ever girlfriend, thus breaking Hermione's heart and justifying the scene's use of several of the film's precious minutes from a character development/plot diagram point of view (scenes that make it from book to screen in these later films have won a fierce battle for scarce real estate), but its real excuse for being here is that it's so much fun to watch.

The quiet-before-the-storm calm that allows all this jollity to proceed unimpeded ends when Harry succeeds in getting Slughorn to tell his Voldemort story. Dumbledore and Harry go off in search of one of Voldemort's hidden soul-fragments, the horcruxes that make him immortal, and find it on an island in an underground lake: that is, in near-total darkness. This enables Yates to shoot the scene very nearly in black and white, setting up a wonderful effect when Harry is dragged into the lake by Voldemort's horde of undead guardians and Dumbledore rescues him, unleashing sheets of flame which fill the screen with violent colour. Michael Gambon moves his arms in giant, effortful circles as he directs the flame in its expanding spiral: we're looking at a display of immense power, but we're also seeing an old man strain against his limits. And then - this is my favourite edit in the whole series - we cut to a bird's eye view of Malfoy, lying motionless in bed. White hair, white sheets, dark coverlet. It's almost a return to the cave's black and white, a negation of Dumbledore's fire. Malfoy is about to get up and let death eaters into Hogwarts, and Dumbledore is about to die.

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2009), directed by David Yates.

Part four here.
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