20 hours of Harry Potter #4: a review of the film series

by David Larsen / 19 August, 2011
David Larsen finishes his marathon review of the Harry Potter movies with both halves of The Deathly Hallows.
Part one of this review here. Part two here. Part three here.

Be advised: spoilers abound.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One

In which our heroes sit round in tents a lot and forget everything anyone's ever told them about sand dunes. This is my favourite film of the series, and that is a 180 reversal of my initial reaction. Commercially it's the least successful of the eight, and the critical consensus has so far been that it comes by its poor-for-Potter box office honestly. I say "so far" because up until the release of the last film, I don't think too many critics had gone back and rewatched it, and it was only the second viewing that sold me. When we saw it on the big screen, less than a year ago, I was entirely un-wowed. A moody, contemplative Harry Potter movie. Excuse me?

Yates had done his best, I decided, with unpromising source material. When I reviewed the book, I'd written this about the chapters that correspond to the film's third act:

Cue weeks and months of sitting around in tents. Rowling is sticking to her one book, one school year structure, even though she’s abandoned the geographical constraint of keeping her main characters in school. She doesn’t have a year’s worth of actual plot, so … lots of paragraphs about how, yet again, our heroes failed to do anything this week except argue.

So it makes sense that the film should feel like the price we had to pay to make it to the good stuff. At least, it makes superficial sense. What occurs to me now, and I'll concede it's a little strange that I managed not to come up with this startling insight earlier, is that a film is not a book. The camping chapters of the novel are marred by the sense that too much time is passing between significant events: Harry and Ron are risk-takers, and Hermione is a planner, and all of a sudden Rowling requires them to just … pause, and get grumpy with each other. Rather than a genuine dark winter of the soul, it feels like an authorially imposed low to set up the coming highs.

The point being that by now we know these characters very well. But in the films, we've never got to spend very much down-time with them; and once Yates fits in all the plot-mandated events even of half a book, we don't get all that much down-time here, either. The camping scenes come after an hour's worth of fighting, escaping, being attacked, getting away, and raiding the enemy stronghold in disguise. They last less than 40 minutes, in the course of which there are two extended brushes with death, the first of them wonderfully nightmarish, in the literal sense of feeling like an out of control dream that gets darker and darker, and the second supplying the answer to the question which has slowed our heroes down: how do we destroy a horcrux?

Forty minutes of character-driven introspection, less one giant snake attack and one battle with a fragment of Voldemort's soul, does not amount to a dreary wasteland of existential gloom. I should not have been so surprised to find, watching this again the night before the final film opened, that I loved these scenes. Ron gets to sidestep his usual light relief sidekick duties and be a person. Harry and Hermione get to talk. They even get to dance. (This much derided scene is a perfect example of the sorts of things critics will pick on when a film hasn't met their expectations and they don't have a good working analysis of its flaws: its sweetness can so easily be mocked as cheap sentiment. It's always tempting to claim the sophistication high ground when a film tries to tug on your heart-strings, in case it turns out that you were just having an emotional day when you watched it and everyone else on the entire planet found it risible. But sometimes, as here, those mockable moments are the real thing.)

Yates takes full advantage of the unprecedented opportunity to shoot most of a Potter film outdoors, leaping from scenic location to scenic location in the style I usually refer to as Film Tourism for the Geographically Illiterate. You know how this works: characters set out from the west side of Mt Ruapehu, turn left at Milford Sound, pause for lunch looking out at Kapiti Island, and make camp at Cape Reinga. Yates, however, is dealing with people who have recently learned to apparate. (Full marks to Rowling for being the first writer in ages to come up with a good new word for "teleport";  she has a genius for words that make her mostly inherited concepts seem entirely her own.) So he can quite legitimately bounce around Britain pointing his camera at the beautiful bits, and beautiful they do look. But the chief pleasure of the film is getting to see Harry, Ron and especially Hermione more relaxed, or at least sufficiently becalmed that there's nothing for them to do except talk. (Hermione has usually been off in the girl's dorm when Harry and Ron have had moments like this in the past.) The pauses between action beats are never long enough for me to think, as I did with the book, "hey, this isn't like them", even though by the calendar it takes just as long here to get to the story's headlong final sprint. Instead, what I think is, "Hey. It turns out I care about these people. How pleasant to be in their company."

This pleasure is partly an artifact of having spent a week working through the series: I'm as deeply marinated in this world right now as I've ever been. Rowling's ability to inculcate that fannish sense of immersion is at the core of her impossible, ridiculous commercial success. I don't really have an explanation for the degree of that success, and I'm impatient with people who imagine they do; post hoc analysis of something unprecedented so often amounts to a covert scramble to appear knowing in the face of the unknown. I haven't seen a really convincing account of why Rowling went not just mega, but meta-mega. Rags to riches, that's a great narrative. Rags to self-made billionaire - guys, we need a new narrative. But I'll suggest this: it matters that Hogwarts is a boarding school, and not just because it lets Rowling surf on the long tradition of English boarding school stories. These characters get to live together, and we get to live with them: there's immersion for you. So, my family has just spent a week immersed, and that's part of why I enjoyed this film so much more this time; its strengths are proportional to one's investment in the characters. There's also the fact that it's designed to be seen immediately before part two – it's the first half of the five-hour final chapter, not a complete series entry in itself. When you watch it and plunge straight on to the finale, as we did this time, both films benefit a great deal. You have to respect Yates for seeing that in the long term, it was worth working to a rhythm that was going to leave his initial theatrical audiences feeling as though they'd been given half a story and sent home, as indeed they had.

That hollow sense of unfinished business would have been strengthened by the location of the film's two major blemishes, which both come towards the end. First, Harry, Ron and Hermione's capture by the snatchers, which occurs after a desperate race through the woods, because obviously it would be cheating to use magic to get to safety. It's not written that way in the book, and it makes no sense whatsoever; in terms of internal logic it would be no less silly to have them stumble across Ron's old enchanted car and stage an exciting getaway attempt on four wheels. Perhaps a few lines of dialogue about the extreme implausibility of the car turning up could have been dangled in front of us, to hint that they were too distracted by its presence to remember how to apparate.

And then we get the death and burial of Dobby. How I'd missed Dobby. How appropriate that even watching him die annoys me. There's a nice moment when he comes to their rescue by unscrewing a giant chandelier and dropping it on Bellatrix - a hat tip to his essential cartooniness which actually comes off. But his brave falsetto announcement that "Dobby is a free elf!", the slo-mo oh-no spinning knife which seems … to be about … to hit him, just as they apparate away (oh look, they've remembered how), his touching death in Harry's arms … no. Sorry. I am not touched. Even before the bit where they bury him – "properly, without magic" – in a sand dune. Sand dunes migrate. Surely it isn't only coastline-overendowed New Zealanders who know this. Why do Ron's brother and sister-in-law not take one of them aside and say, "Look, we're going to end up with bits of decomposing elf on our cute little coastal cottage doorstep, I know the spot's got a great view, but could you bury him somewhere else?"

That's how the film ends, and it's the worst misjudgement of Yates's Potter quartet. You could mount an argument that Half-blood Prince, being the quintessential Hogwarts story and lacking any serious flaws, is therefore the stronger film. I suppose it would be perverse to respond that a true Potter film needs a serious flaw, to fit in properly, though this idea is part of how I do in fact deal with Dobby, and with the things that annoy me in the last film as well. The reason I'm motivated to make such feeble excuses is that Yates is doing something here that delights me: not just judging, correctly, that you need to draw back before you take a flying leap, but reversing the usual weighting between Harry, Hermione and Ron's friendship and the furtherance of the plot. If the series were a school timetable, which is not a wildly inappropriate metaphor, this film would be the free period. There's a pile of course work we should probably get on with, but … let's talk. Let's argue. Let's hang out.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two

Have I mentioned that I like the music in the four Yates films? Not passionately; but it stays out of the way when it isn't needed, there are some good original tunes, especially Nicholas Hooper's theme for the training sessions in Phoenix, and the residual John Williams material is deployed effectively. This comes to mind now because the final film opens with a series of scenes in which there's no music at all, and very little background noise. The distant sound of waves breaking, the odd seagull overhead, and silence, over which people talk in low voices. Warwick Davis, excellently flinty as the goblin Griphook, and John Hurt, as an exhausted and frightened Olivander, provide the central trio with the foils they need to generate an intense, focused, this-is-it vibe. And then it's off to rob the goblin bank, and all hell breaks loose.

I have not always been a fan of Helena Bonham Carter, and especially not of her Bellatrix Lestrange. Bellatrix is a madwoman; but there's mad, and then there's flouncing, mincing, stop-your-ascent-you-went-over-the-top-half-an-hour-ago-and-are-now-heading-into-orbit mad. However. In the bank raid, Hermione uses polyjuice potion to disguise herself as Bellatrix, meaning that Bonham Carter is required to play Hermione attempting to play Bellatrix. There have been a number of these polyjuice potion moments, and this puts all the others in the shade. It helps that Bellatrix normally comes on like a cross between a deliriously drunk British nanny and a rampaging bull elephant; all Bonham Carter has to do is dial it back a bit and she's halfway to a remarkable change of register. But she goes the rest of the distance on pure skill, giving us an Emma Watson who briefly happens, to her considerable discomfort, to be in the wrong body, and then moving very slightly towards a Bellatrix impression. Very slightly is indeed as far as Hermione would be able to go.

I love the white dragon in the Gringotts vault. (So much weight to its movements, such a strong sense of a real abused animal in its flinches. It isn't a special effect, it's what you get when special effects are put in the hands of storytellers who know their business). I love the escape from the bank. I love the use of the John Williams music to herald the return to Hogwarts; I adore the showdown between Snape and McGonagall in the great hall; and when McGonagall, racing to prepare for the imminent arrival of a large army of Death Eaters, pauses to say, "Potter … it's good to see you", I am newly inspired to track down every film Maggie Smith has ever been in. In the books, Molly Weasley establishes herself as Harry's substitute mother, a relationship which never quite gets enough room to blossom in the films. Smith's McGonagall, who doesn't get that many scenes either, is very clearly his substitute grandmother: stern, formidable, quietly proud of her boy.

To abbreviate the lengthy list of "I love this bit" remarks, I spent the first two thirds of the film on cloud nine. "It all ends here", says the poster, which seems an unambitious claim on the face of it - yes, we can now announce that the last Harry Potter movie is the last Harry Potter movie! - but there really is a sense of a grand undertaking coming to a close infusing these scenes, managing to give them added punch without making them seem overblown. Pulling this many threads together into what amounts to a two-hour running battle is on the face of it just another instance of the usual challenge facing the makers of ensemble action movies; we see films attempt something similar every year. But this congeries of fight scenes has more story behind it than any comparable film I can think of, and way, way more minor characters to deal with. Many of them spend the whole film in the background; some of them die there. Had I not spent a week refreshing my familiarity with the series, these don't-blink-you'll-miss-it send-offs might have struck me as overly perfunctory. (Who was that dead person? Wait, was that another one?) Because I recognised all the characters (even Tonks, who scarcely makes it into the films at all), their flickering deaths registered as an effective way of conveying the unsentimental reality of war. Coordinating it all must have been quite the technical feat. I imagine David Yates and his producers are off lying on beaches right now, muttering, "It's over … it's actually over", and waiting for the nervous twitching to subside.

It's a very dark film. Literally: when Harry, Ron and Hermione confer in the cottage stairwell at the start, they're only just visible in the dimness, and when Voldemort's army appears on the hilltop overlooking Hogwarts, they're dark shapes against dark land, only the pale glimmer of their heads marking them out. The light levels throughout are extremely low, with the well-judged tactical exceptions of Snape's memories and Harry's King's Cross of the mind. We deliberately chose to see the film in 2D, partly because the rest of the series was shot that way and we wanted the continuity, but mostly because this film was also shot this way, and then converted to 3D in post-production. The difference between films shot with 3D rigs and films bumped up to the higher ticket price after the fact is the difference between Avatar and Green Lantern, which is to say the difference between landmark and landfill. But aside from the fact that conversions tend not to have a very strong 3D effect, or to use it to any great purpose, there's the detail that 3D glasses are polarising, meaning they screen out about a third of the light that hits them. For this film, so dim to begin with, I thought this would mean half the scenes getting lost in the murk. Friends reported this wasn't the case, though they didn't find the 3D added much; one friend who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do explained that 3D projectors compensate for the light loss effect by using brighter bulbs. The problem with this - as I discovered when the boys and I decided to go see the film again, this time in 3D - is that the brighter bulb compensated a bit too well. This time, when the death eaters appeared on the hilltop, they were quite easy to make out. I'd liked that "hordes half-hidden in the gloaming" effect. The impact of the 3D, in any case, was negligible, even in the vast caverns of Gringotts, which ought to have felt wider and deeper in this format. I suppose now I need to see the film a third time, in 2D again, to check whether that first viewing's dimness wasn't a one-off effect of a sleepy projectionist turning the dial to the wrong setting.

I would see it a third time, actually. So many fan-boy moments. Ron's expression as he urges Hermione to destroy a horcrux in the chamber of secrets, to which they've returned to find a horcrux-destroying basilisk fang: Rupert Grint has not very often been asked for intensity, but it turns out he can burn like a magnesium flare when he needs to. This leads inevitably to the next fanboy pleasure: Ron and Hermione's first kiss, which is made unexpectedly loveable by the way they laugh together afterwards: "We finally got here". And speaking of things that have taken a while to happen, when Ron figures out where Harry's vanished to before Hermione does, she looks distinctly taken aback: at last, at last, it occurs to someone - Yates? Klove? Watson? - to play the "Hermione's always got the answer" trope for laughs.

Harry is in the Room of Requirement, a risky creation of Rowling's in that it turns itself into whatever the person entering it wants it to be, and therefore comes very close to being the ultimate in narrative contrivance. The room functions, among other things, as Hogwarts' equivalent of an attic; as Harry wanders around it, searching for one of the final horcruxes through the piles of things wizards have dumped here over the years, we see any number of props from the other films abandoned in the shadows. It's one of the nicer "say goodbye to all this, folks" moments, and it provides the perfect setting for Harry's final showdown with Malfoy. The mix of mutual dislike and faint but real mutual respect Radcliffe and Felton manage here is exactly right - it seems to imply a much richer and more interesting feud than the previous films have actually found time to dramatise for us, an acknowledgement, in a quiet way, that there was always more going on at Hogwarts than we got to see.

Which is also the case with the relationship between Harry and Snape. I worship at the shrine of Alan Rickman, but this role has not asked a lot of him, and, pleasing as it's been over the years to see Snape's sarcasm performed by someone who understands the lethal potential of a slow drawl and a raised eyebrow, Rickman can do so much more. We've seen hints of his range in Phoenix and Half-blood Prince, but there's really only one scene in the series - books or films - where Snape steps out of his assumed character and shows us his real one, and it comes after his death. It's Rowling's best sudden reversal, and even though anyone with half an eye for a plot twist would have sensed there was a revelation pending, Rickman makes it work. (Reader, I cried.) The death scene itself makes precious little sense if you stop and reflect on it. Harry and the others have raced down to the boat house to find Voldemort so they can kill his snake, which they think is the last horcrux; naturally when they find him distracted by a conversation with the man who killed Dumbledore, they're too polite to interupt. But Rickman and Fiennes play the exchange so well it's easy to forget that there are secret onlookers just outside the window, who by rights ought to leap in, kill the snake, and apparate away, saving Snape's life in the process. This is the last and the purest instance of Harry acting as our surrogate presence in Rowling's world; in fact it effectively reassigns Harry briefly to our world. For the duration of the scene, he's sitting with us in the audience.

Fiennes. Again, I worship at the shrine. But do you think, when Rowling decided to pay tribute to Voldemort's close relationship with snakes by denying him a nose, she had any inkling someone was going to have to play the role on screen? You can just about imagine a terrifying dark incarnation of evil who doesn't happen to have a nose; and in fact you don't have to, because Fiennes just about manages to present us with one. That soft, adenoidal voice, the sinuous, slightly effete body language. But I've seen a few photos of him in costume, but with the nose not yet edited out. He's so much more sinister when you're not troubled by that urge to snigger.

Evil is such a problem for heroic fantasy. Earlier this year I interviewed Patrick Rothfuss, whose The Name of the Wind is the best received debut fantasy novel of recent years. He discussed some of the dead ends he'd gone down in trying to avoid the usual fantasy cliches: "For instance, I decided there would be no villain. It's always bothered me, the way fantasy villains behave. Why would you want to destroy the world? That's where you keep all your stuff! So I threw out villains, and after about two years working on the story, I realised actually, sometimes you kind of need an antagonist." Voldemort is the antagonist Rowling's story kind of needs, and he's not a lot more. The will to power, the fear of death, and the inability to love: that's Voldemort, and since the first thing new students at Hogwarts discover is that they're sharing the place with a bunch of ghosts, the fear of death part has always struck me as slightly underexamined. Still, there it is, the difference between Harry and He Who Must Not Be Named, once you acknowledge that Harry is willing to use all of the so-called unforgiveable dark magics if he's desperate or angry enough, is that Harry loves his friends, and is ready to die for them. I like the roar of static which crests as he walks towards Voldemort to sacrifice himself. It's almost the last thing in the film I like unreservedly.

The King's Cross maybe-afterlife scene works, in the book. Here, it seems to suffer from editing compression. Several times, Harry's exchange with Dumbledore changes tack in a way which might suggest that Harry is confused - well, he has a right to be - and continually thinking of new things he wants to ask. But the leaps don't feel entirely natural; Dumbledore's comments keep ticking the "we absolutely have to fit this bit of explication in somewhere" boxes without quite adding up to a real conversation. My guess is that there was rather more to the scene originally, and it got edited down when the film went long. The sense of disjointedness is faint, but this scene is so vulnerable to errors of tone. Rowling manages to bring on Harry's dead mentor, have him dump a heap of exposition on us, and then send her equally dead hero back for another bout of wand slinging without making me feel that she's changing her own rules just to get a happy ending. Here, the demons of narrative contrivance can be heard gnawing on the edges of the screen. When Harry says, "I have to go back, don't I?", it feels as though he's moved from grief at leaving all his friends to understanding he gets to live quite a lot too easily. And Michael Gambon's delivery of Rowling's very best line - "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?" - falls flat. Sometimes, when you're asked to say something portentous, the best thing to do, unsubtle as it may seem, is to allow yourself to sound portentous.

In the book, Harry plays dead after he returns to his body, allowing himself to be lugged back to the castle and displayed to his horror-struck friends, and then slipping under his invisibility cloak when Neville provides a distraction. The last great battle erupts around him, and he stays invisible, watching, until Molly Weasley kills Bellatrix and Voldemort is about to kill her in revenge. That's the moment when Harry throws off the cloak, and, with the whole Hogwarts community watching, duels with Voldemort in front of them, killing him cleanly. This, in the heroic fantasy game, is the very definition of a money shot. Our hero returns from the grave just as the guy who killed his mother is about to kill the mother of his best friend and his girlfriend, and not only does he save her, he kills the bad guy and saves the whole damn world, with everyone he knows looking on: does this need tinkering with? Are you kidding me? Maybe the bit where Harry treats Voldemort to a lengthy explanation of why the Elder Wand isn't going to save his ugly hide could be viewed as dispensable, though it's perfectly in keeping with the mystery structure the books all adhere to. (It's Harry's Poirot speech: "I suppose you're wondering why I've called you here today …") But for the rest – film it as written! Circle the pair with your camera and make sure you get reaction shots of every last significant onlooker, and thank Rowling for serving up such a perfect ending.

Or you could do what Yates does, and make up your own. This let me down terribly, the first time I watched it. The second time, I found I liked his version well enough, because in fact it works fine on its own terms. But its own terms are generic. Good guy and bad guy fight their way through multiple locations, while supporting cast fight their own battle to give the good guy his shot at victory. (In this case, they have to kill Voldemort's snake, his very last horcrux.) Main fight, minor fight: cut back, cut forth, cut back, cut forth. Victory condition fulfilled! At the last moment! But look! Good guy and bad guy have both dropped their weapons! They elbow-crawl painfully through the rubble … they leap up, armed again! They fire!

Harry wins. Colour me amazed.

This is the finale's analogue to Dobby's tragic death: the flaw that I have to explain away to myself by muttering, "Well, a Potter film can't be perfect, it would just feel wrong." Though I do like the way Voldemort dies, dissolving into fragments of burning paper. It's as though the films, having got what they needed from him, are giving him back to the books; or, if you prefer, it's as though the films are announcing that now they're brought the story to its end, the on-paper existence of these characters can be dispensed with.

I've raided the books for details while I've been writing this review, and a few times I've found myself sitting down and rereading chapters I hadn't gone back to for ages. I'm currently halfway through The Half-blood Prince, which I've never reread before now; together with The Order of the Phoenix, it was my least favourite of the books when I read it initially. Rowling is such an odd writer. It's hard to comment on her style without appearing to sneer, because sentences really aren't her thing. Images aren't, either; or at least, she doesn't put much of her story across in strongly visual terms. Names, she's superb at; characters likewise, though sometimes I get the impression that one character or another has remained largely trapped in her mind, never managing to find the right words to incarnate themselves fully on the page. When Sirius Black died at the end of Phoenix, I could hardly bring myself to care, because I didn't feel as though I knew him. Rowling, famously, wept while she was writing the scene. I conclude from this that Sirius was a much richer character in her imagination than she ever conveyed to me, and that she never realised the internal character and the one on the page didn't match.

The films round these half-translated characters out. Ginny Weasley never gets much screen time, but I buy her relationship with Harry entirely. I never did in the books. These are, in fact, unusually film-friendly books: even though there's so much in them that films can't accommodate, the films let the story take on dimensions the books lack. It will be another 10 years before I feel up to watching the early ones again. But watching all eight of them together has been a treat.

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