Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Wizard (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I)


Several reviews of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I have cited a pair of scenes as standouts -- a lovely dance interlude between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and an erotically-turbocharged fantasy sequence that functions as the last temptation of Ron (Rupert Grint) -- but what impresses me most is how the two go together. Heretically, the dance scene is not JK Rowling's invention. On the run from Voldemort's endless supply of assassins, and abandoned by their insecure red-headed pal, Harry and Hermione hole up in a tent in the middle of nowhere, listening to Nick Cave's "O'Children" fading in and out through an old transistor radio, until the former offers the latter his hand and for a few minutes they awkwardly, charmingly boogie with the spirit of what remains of their adolescence. Not long after, Ron returns with a weapon that will destroy the horcrux in their possession. Before he can, however, the horcrux (a piece of Voldemort's soul, one of a handful that needs to be destroyed to defeat He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named) attempts to undermine Ron with his greatest fear: a vision of Hermione and Harry together as lovers. While this passage is in Rowling's book, onscreen it's so surprisingly erotic (flirting with R-rated nudity) that it would be laughed at without the dance to precede it.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: David Yates is a filmmaker who understands the difference between a book and a movie. The first director of the series, Chris Columbus, has never even understood movies, and made two films that are the definition of hackwork; while his successor, Alfonso Cuaron, turned in a highly-praised third installment that for me, between its Jamaican talking-heads and cheesy final freeze-frame, showed the downside of artsy personal moviemaking. Mike Newell's fourth film boasted the best special effects of the series to date, but was as ham-fisted and tone-deaf as one might expect from a director who admits that he doesn't care for children. Then Yates arrived, and finally Harry Potter found its stride. The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince streamlined Rowling's plotting and found the visual equivalent to her prose without treating every word as if it were Holy Writ. As somebody once said about the Bible, Yates shows the difference between taking Harry Potter literally and taking it seriously.

Deathly Hallows, the grand finale of Rowling's seven-part saga, has been split into two films -- Part I (this one) and Part II (released next summer) -- both directed by Yates. Certainly there are monetary considerations for doing this, but it also gives the filmmakers more room to breathe. Steve Kloves, who has adapted every Potter novel except for Order of the Phoenix (Michael Goldenberg had the honors -- and did good work -- on that one), and with Deathly Hallows: Part I he's allotted more time for the character-driven moments that are his specialty. (To be honest, I've often wondered if Kloves misses the larger points of his films, which in the pre-Potter era included The Fabulous Baker Boys and Flesh and Bone.) In turn, this frees Radcliffe, Grint and Watson to show-off their acting chops, which have improved by leaps and bounds since their Sorcerer's Stone days. All three are astoundingly good in the two key scenes mentioned earlier, as well as the array of dramatic, comic and tragic beats they hit time and again throughout the film's 146 minutes. More than any previous Potter film, the appearances by the League of Extraordinary British Thespians (Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Jason Isaacs, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Brendan Gleeson) are little more than window dressing. Deathly Hallows: Part I is tightly focused on its trio of leads, and follows them from peril to peril.

Before seeing the film I had mocked reviews calling this installment the one where "Harry Potter Goes Dark," as the series has been ensconced in shadows since at least Goblet of Fire. But, I must admit, Deathly Hallows: Part I feels unrelenting in its travails and terrors. The Ministry of Magic becomes Voldemort's Vichy government, spreading Nazi-ish propaganda about the need to eradicate Muggles (non-magical persons) and "Mudbloods" (a slur of the former). Hogwarts too comes under the Ministry's jurisdiction, with Snape -- who killed Dumbledore in Half-Blood Prince -- the school's new headmaster. In the backstretch of her series, Rowling had toyed from time to time with the common template in each book (Harry stays with the Dursleys, celebrates his birthday, arrives at Hogwarts, plays Quidditch, uncovers a threat, hijinks ensue). But with Harry, Hermione and Ron never arriving for their final year of classes, Deathly Hallows marked the first time Rowling was working without a net. Her plotting occasionally got clunky and repetitive, with some rather shameless pilfering from The Lord of the Rings; yet what she was saying about her characters -- that they need to use the knowledge they've learned in school in order to survive in the world -- was deeply insightful. Considering how much emotion had been invested in the final novel by her worldwide base of fans, it was also very brave.

Hogwarts will play a more prominent role in the second Deathly Hallows film. (There is a nice bit of foreshadowing in this one -- another scene not in the book -- with Neville Longbottom [Matthew Lewis] standing up for a fellow student on the train en route to the school.) Much of Part I takes place in woods and along shores, as the search for horcruxes pulls our heroes far away from civilization. Before their departure, the semi-principled Minister of Magic (Bill Nighy, who starred in Yates's The Girl in the Cafe) has a Galadriel moment and gives Frodo and Sam Harry, Hermione and Ron items bequeathed to them from Dumbledore's will -- possessions which, of course, will help them along their journey.

I adored Yates's visual storytelling in Order of the Phoenix and especially Half-Blood Prince. Yet there are passages in Deathly Hallows: Part I where his timing seems off. A daring raid on the Ministry of Magic is pulled off with panache. Other scenes, like an ambush on a wedding reception, fly by so fast their momentousness barely registers. The most frightening scene in Rowling's book, when Harry and Hermione encounter a woman who may know secrets about Dumbledore, has its impact diluted in the film. There were times when I wanted Yates to hold an image or a beat a moment longer. Other action sequences are protracted to the point where they're bludgeoning. (I should add that there was a problem with the sound in the theater I attended, which may have accounted for the aural assault.)

Many of the flaws in Deathly Hallows: Part I have nothing to do with the filmmaking. They're a product of an original narrative that lurches from finding horcruxes to discovering swords to searching for the "deathly hallows" themselves. In a gorgeous animated sequence that taps deeply into Potter lore, we learn just what the "hallows" are, a marked improvement on Rowling's exposition. Additionally, Yates and Kloves condense the interminable bickering of their protagonists from the novel by about 85 percent, and do their best to balance a sense of frustration felt by characters who believe they're going in circles with a clear narrative trajectory toward a climactic destination. While this certainly recalls The Lord of the Rings, another film to which Deathly Hallows has been compared is The Empire Strikes Back. Indeed, Hallows is like Empire with the lead trio sticking together (Ron's brief departure aside). The Empire Strikes Back separated Luke, Han and Leia in order to shape their characters. Harry, Ron and Hermone evolve in tandem, and more than any other film, all are given nearly equal weight.

There is so much to admire in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I (I haven't even mentioned the marvelous score by Alexandre Desplat, fast becoming my favorite film composer) with so much being eagerly discussed around every water cooler and every coffee shop I've frequented over the last few days, that I'm surprised barely a peep has been written about it so far in the blogosphere. My guess is what does eventually come will be in the form of a rant or a dismissal, which is the prerogative of the unimpressed but I think takes for granted the accomplishment of this series. Nothing quite like the Harry Potter movies has ever been attempted, and that they've grown fresher rather than more stale is a testament to the talents both before and behind the camera. So many films leave me with a shrug, often at best a flickering interest. The last few Harry Potters, by contrast, have made me feel the tingles I had watching movies as a kid. I never knew how much I missed those tingles. I do know how much I will miss this series when it comes to an end.

11 comments:

Hokahey said...

This is well written and well supported without being the blind veneration of a fervent fan. You point out the strengths - and I agree with you in regards to the action scenes that worked and didn't work. And I liked the provocative temptation of Ron - but I wish there had been more of that, in a shorter, tighter movie, or in a final chapter done in one film.

Sorry, this is too long and drawn out for me, with dramatic moments cut short, and boring dialogue delivered slowly, ever so slowly and thoughtfully. I have faithfully seen all the movies with my daughter, who loves them, but I am no longer enchanted by the series, if I ever was.

I find, and this is more a criticism of Rowling, that the plot is too much of a conglomeration of devices that seem picked out of a hat. Reminds me of the line in Life of Brian when Brian is pretending to be the soothsayer; John Cleese says, "He's making it up as he goes along!"

To me, it's a lot of random elements of magic and hocus pocus, and elements borrowed from other sources (you yourself seem to allude to the carrying of the horcrux as the bearing of the Ring in Tolkien), that it's too complicated and arbitrary for me to find it enchanting and engaging. I wish this had been the final movie, all in one. In the Star Wars franchise, you could at least count on each movie to have at least one chase scene or duel, as well as one battle, that were memorable set-pieces. For me, all the movies blur together and I don't find them very memorable.

Craig said...

Hokahey,

Sorry for any typos -- it's hard to write behind a veil of tears.

But seriously. If you don't dig it, you don't dig it. I can respect that. And I can certainly see the argument to whittle down Deathly Hallows into one film. That's what Yates achieved with Order of the Phoenix, transforming the longest of the books into the shortest of the movies, and a good one at that. On the other hand, some of the best scenes (like that dance) would have ended up on the cutting room floor. The movie would have been one breathless chase after another without pause -- a common criticism of The Fellowship of the Ring, as I recall -- when what I like best are the pauses, those character moments that make the Potter films (or at least the last three) more than a franchise.

It helps that Yates seems to like those moments best too. Action really isn't his thing, which is why a couple of those sequences fall flat. Tthough I recall far fewer crackerjack set-pieces in the last three Star Wars films.) He has a gift for comedy and visual puns and understanding the emotion of a given scene. You're not wrong about Rowling's grab-bag of "random moments." But what she does especially well -- which David Yates emulates without echoing -- is burrowing directly to the pulse of a passage, of letting you feel what her characters are feeling. I've said before that I can forgive a lot in a movie if the emotions are there. They are here in Deathly Hallows.

Hokahey said...

Craig - You argue well for your preference, and I totally respect that. And, believe me, as a high school teacher, I am surrounded by Harry Potter devotees of both the books and the movies. They agree with you that Rowling - and Yates - make you feel what the characters are feeling.

Jason Bellamy said...

What kind of an asshole would rant against Harry Potter?!

I've got thoughts on this film, which will come in the form of a proper review later in the week. More then.

Craig said...

Jason, don't make me end our online friendship!

Just kidding. And, incidentally, I don't think you're an asshole. I just think it's funny how the "Harry Potter" movies leave me feeling more exposed than any other films I like (or dislike). All my online movie pals dismiss the films, while my day-to-day real-world friends and colleagues love them. And my regular disagreements about movies with those in the "real-world" are what made me seek out fellow online movie buffs in the first place. It's disorienting.

Ronak M Soni said...

Interestingly, the only reason I'm actually interested in the Harry Potter movies are the action scenes (and you've just reduced my enthusiasm for watching it). They seem to be the only at all good action movies coming out from Hollywood nowadays (I occasionally watch Hong Kong movies, but I don't get those on a big screen); the moment in the sixth movie when Helena B-C jumps out of a closet and smiles is still an enduring memory.
Also, the only thing I liked in the book (apart from, inexplicably, the Harry-Ginny love story) was the two hundred page fight scene. How many books give us that? (LotR does, but that's very mythic while this is very down-to-earth).

Not only do I agree with your applause of Yates, I'd say that Yates actually improves the books in more than one significant way, and just in the sixth movie:
-> The group of three becomes practically a group of four, with the natural addition of Ginny that makes many many plot elements flow out more smoothly.
-> Romantic elements. In the books, boring even when present. And gawd, does that Ginny have screen presence!

Btw, is the score you speak so highly of similar to the last movie's? Because I found that score very... umm, cutesy. Or maybe it's not the music I found cutesy as much as the fact that it was used to highlight dark scenes.

Craig said...

Ronak,

Nicholas Hooper did the score for the last "Potter" movie. (Truth be told, I don't remember the music for that one at all.) Alexandre Desplat wrote the score for "Deathly Hallows", and it's deep and ominous and propulsive, not cutesy at all. He also did the music for "The Ghost Writer," my other favorite score of the year.

Bonnie Wright (i.e., Ginny) isn't in this one too much. She'll have a bigger role in the next. And she's getting so tall she's damn near peering down on Radcliffe. It makes for an awkwardly charming romantic interlude.

FilmDr said...

A nice defense of the film. I differ with this point:

"As somebody once said about the Bible, Yates shows the difference between taking Harry Potter literally and taking it seriously."

I didn't see enough of an attempt on Yates' part to play with solemnities of the novel in Deathly Hallows, although the Half-Blood Prince did seem more open to self-mockery. And the general media response to the new movie seems so unreflectingly worshipful, I had a hard time seeing the good points of the film that you explore here. I may be just getting burned out on the whole thing.

One sad missed opportunity in the movie. When the threesome suddenly appear in Piccadilly Square, too bad they didn't run past Radcliffe's production of Equus. I saw him perform in that, and I much preferred that to the usual pitter Potter.

Jason Bellamy said...

First let me say that I envy those childlike tingles. Wish I felt those. Truly glad that you do. That's special; regardless of what creates it.

Second, I wish I had read the novels only so I could tell if the problem is that the films are too much of Rowling or too little. You seem to suggest that the Yates films are a little less strict in their obedience. But it seems to me that the films have never been particularly good about liberating themselves of the "tell because we can't show" approach that I suspect is in the books. It's as if when adapting the books the screenwriters say, "OK, we need to have the scene where Harry and Dumbledore talk about this, and the scene where Ron and Hermione talk about that." And instead they should have been looking for the larger theme of what happens in those scenes and more often found ways to make that visual, more natural, less plainly descriptive. That's just my hunch.

Finally, as for the League of Extraordinary British Thespians serving as "little more than window dressing" in this film, that's true and it's not. True in that there's a lot more of the three young heroes, where the past films have given more time to their villains or quasi-villains. But untrue in the sense that the movie is still most alive when members of the LEBT are on screen.

Craig said...

Film Doc --

I didn't see enough of an attempt on Yates' part to play with solemnities of the novel in Deathly Hallows, although the Half-Blood Prince did seem more open to self-mockery. And the general media response to the new movie seems so unreflectingly worshipful, I had a hard time seeing the good points of the film that you explore here. I may be just getting burned out on the whole thing.

You're right, there's very little sense of play this time out. Zacharek wrote that it felt like Yates and Kloves were "dancing as fast as they can" to cram as much in as they could. They made it through about 500 of the book's 700-something pages, so I'm hoping that they've given themselves a little more breathing room for the final film.

Craig said...

Jason --

Second, I wish I had read the novels only so I could tell if the problem is that the films are too much of Rowling or too little. You seem to suggest that the Yates films are a little less strict in their obedience. But it seems to me that the films have never been particularly good about liberating themselves of the "tell because we can't show" approach that I suspect is in the books.

Starting with the books, I'd say that Rowling is too much Rowling. Earlier this week I was talking with a twentysomething young woman who said she grew up on the books, and she perceptively noted the precise moment where Rowling stopped being edited and took over the franchise: the first three Potters are relatively trim, all between 250-350 pages; whereas the fourth novel through the seventh balloon to 700 pages plus. Thus the first two movies were able to dutifully follow the narrative very closely, but because a lousy director was at the helm, they missed the feeling entirely.

Cuaron's film (the third) marked the first time the movies broke even a little from Rowling's prose to incorporate the director's own vision, and the critics loved it. (Personally, I thought it was a mess.) Newell's went bludgeoningly by the numbers, perhaps appropriately since "Goblet of Fire" is the most bludgeoning of Rowling's books. As I've written, it's David Yates who managed to hit the sweet spot; part of the reason for that, I think, is because he's applied to Rowling the Peter Jackson approach to Tolkien in eliminating a lot of the exposition, reasoning (correctly, in my opinion) that if you're not on board by now you never will be.

However, for the non-readers of the books, this does create moments of dissonance like those you cited in your post. For the reader, it creates a conundrum that I'm trying not to fall into this time, where I explain the context of those scenes while you argue that if the scenes were truly effective then they wouldn't need explaining in the first place.

And...you're not wrong. These movies really can't stand alone; they weren't designed to. They're a visual complement to a literary phenomenon, and a good one, I think, ending in a much better place than where they started (i.e., a supplement).