Friday, November 26, 2010

Eight Will Be Enough: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I

Seven films into the Harry Potter series – or is it six and a half? – it’s impossible to tell where the epic sprawl ends and the monotony begins. Maybe that’s because we’ve had our fair share of both from the very start. As if trying to justify the overwhelming commercial success of the novels, each cinematic adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s books has felt as overstuffed as one of Hagrid’s shirts. The shortest film in the series, 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, clocks in at a fairly lengthy 138 minutes, and now the latest film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, brings the total running time of the series to a Quidditch match shy of 18 hours. By the time Deathly Hallows: Part II comes out in July 2011, Harry Potter’s adolescent quest will have gone on as long as the first two seasons of Mad Men combined. But it won’t have taken us as far. Over course of the series, the characters have aged and the themes have matured and the sense of consequence has increased, and yet the journey has remained circular – one long episode after another in which Harry struggles with his responsibility, Hermione provides the answers, Ron wallows, Dumbledore drops clues (even from the grave) and Voldemort looms. I’d had my fill of it several films ago, and after Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince all I could do was throw up my hands. And yet as I watched David Yates’ latest film drift into its second hour, I couldn’t deny the series’ cumulative effect. Simply put, I care.

Not deeply, I admit. And not at all in relation to the narrative, which is as muddled, arbitrary and derivative as ever. But when it comes to the fate of Harry, Hermione and Ron, yeah, I’m emotionally invested. They aren’t terribly interesting characters, and they certainly aren’t multidimensional ones, but after being with them for 1,047 minutes, dammit, they’re family. I’ve watched them grow up. And while I consider it a weakness that the Harry Potter saga has never developed any series-spanning character subplots beyond the milking-it-for-all-its worth romantic tension between Hermione and Ron, the result of watching these three carry the same crosses for so long is that I’m desperate to see them liberated of their burdens – for their sake more than mine. Unless the series is to resemble something from the imagination of Lars von Trier, it’s time for the payoff. Overdue, actually. I have serious doubts whether the climax can possibly live up to our oversized expectations, given that long patches of forgettable foreplay have plagued the series thus far, but I root for it. After often being made to walk backward on the dramatic conveyer belt to avoid the series’ date with destiny while filling Rowling’s pockets, Harry, Hermione and Ron deserve that.

And so the ending begins with Deathly Hallows: Part I, which nicely sets the table for the big finish. I don’t pretend to remember the previous Harry Potter films well enough to say whether this is the best in the series, but I can say with certainty that it includes many of my favorite scenes. First there’s the episode’s chill-inducing opener, in which Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes simultaneously channeling Emperor Palpatine and Hannibal Lecter) holds court with his black-clad cohorts, instantly establishing a sense of fatal menace that’s punctuated by his serpentine companion slithering toward the camera and opening wide for an audience-engulfing chomp. (Who needs 3D?) Then there’s the scene in which Harry, Hermione and Ron infiltrate the Ministry of Magic by impersonating adult agents – the characters’ youthful anxiety revealing itself in the comically wide-eyed expressions and awkward gaits of adult stand-ins David O’Hara, Sophie Thompson and Steffan Rhodri, respectively. After that there’s the scene in which Harry and Hermione share an impromptu dance so sweet and playful that it reminds us how young these characters are and how innocent adolescence should be, thereby reinforcing the toll of their ordeal and the magnitude of their sacrifice – an important touch point. And finally there’s the absolutely awesome animated sequence directed by Ben Hibon that depicts the apparently-not-so-fairy-tale fable about the titular deathly hallows, featuring illustrations that are mysteriously indistinct, strikingly intricate and absolutely mystical all at once. These scenes aren’t just standouts within the Harry Potter series. They’re wonderful moments of cinema, period.

And yet the film isn’t without some typical disappointments, even though – thank the heavens – we’re spared an interminable Quidditch match. For starters, take note that of the four standout sequences I mentioned above, only one of them includes any of the three principal young stars – Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron). I realize that it’s all too easy to be upstaged by the likes of major British talents like Fiennes, Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) and Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), who never let a frame go by without mining their characters for maximum colorfulness, but considering that Radcliff, Watson and Grint are in nearly every scene in the film, this is significant. As much as I’ve come to care for these characters, my goodness they’re bland! Particularly Radcliffe’s Harry, who despite flashes of presence here and there consistently struggles to convey any emotion without the use of dialogue. Of course, that’s a problem for the series at large, too: so few things in the Harry Potter series are self-evident. Each film is an assault of explanations: “x is the problem”; “y is the possible solution”; “z is how I feel about it.” Rinse and repeat. That’s exactly why that impromptu dance is so striking, because for once no words are necessary. (Does that have something to do with the fact that the dancing scene isn't in the book?) Ditto the handful of scenes in which the heroic trio walk through apocalyptic ghost towns reminiscent of The Road. Yates and cinematographer Eduardo Serra give this installment plenty of worthy images, but it’s tough to appreciate them amidst all of the dialogue balloons.

And I suppose the Harry Potter series is tough for me to appreciate in general, because the narrative is as tedious as it is suffocating, and sometimes it’s just nonsensical. For example, I don’t understand why it’s considered some kind of heroic effort for Ron to swing a sword at a pendant creating a nightmarish apparition of Hermione and Harry in a naked embrace. (Isn't that the easy thing to do?) I don’t understand why all of the “good guys” constantly rendezvous at the Weasley homestead when I swear that Death Eaters attacked that place a few films ago. (Do I have that wrong? Did the Death Eaters forget the address?) I don’t understand why Dumbledore has to be such a friggin’ tease. (Is the fate of the world at stake, or not?) And I especially don’t understand why the death of the elfin Dobby – a cross between Smeagol and Yoda who until now has been an inconsequential annoyance – inspires a greater emotional outburst from Harry than the death of Dumbledore, or even “Mad-Eye” Moody (other than the fact that it happens at the end of Part I, so it's a good time to pump up the emotional volume). For a series that's constantly concerned with plot, its narrative is wildly inconsistent – perhaps because book readers are expected to fill in the gaps. Film to film, director to director, the Harry Potter series continues to operate as video photo albums for fans of the books who bring to the theater an understanding of context, not to mention a sense of nostalgia, that’s foreign to me. Based on the films alone, I can’t help but wonder why Rowling spent so much time creating so many supporting characters without further developing the main ones. Is it too much to hope that one of these days Harry, Hermione or Ron might do something that will surprise me? After all these years, I care about these kids. I do. I just don’t know why.


Richard Bellamy said...

Well, I do not care. And I'm not rooting for the three kids. It's so obvious they will triumph and I don't FEEL the threat. I see the threat there in many ghosts and demons and snakes and villains and the normal-looking dudes they meet in the woods who chase them - but, ooh, I'm not scared! Because the hocus pocus always comes to their rescue, and if there's a new problem, there's a new solution, which, I believe, Rowling invented spontaneously as needed.

Nevertheless, I acknowledge the brief moments of great filmmaking in this episode. First of all, I liked the opening shots of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, alienated by the threat upon them, striking out on their own. I liked the shots of the tent pitched in isolated spots. I liked the tributes to Brazil/Metropolis/1984 in the Ministry sequence. But there were longer, more annoying bits: the whole multiple Harrys deception; the aerial battle; the chase through London.

Meanwhile, I clearly know HOW MUCH others care: my daughter, my students. At least I can look forward to seeing the final installment with my daughter. She will care about the outcome and be in suspense, and I can tap into her caring.

The Film Doctor said...


Your review nicely straddles both the pros and cons of the movie, but I still wonder how much familiarity with the series as a whole short-circuits one's ability to judge this movie as it is. How the larger continuum makes one so glad to be back with the gang, one doesn't notice so much the repetition, the plot contrivances, and so on. You do acknowledge many of the "tedious" "suffocating" and "nonsensical" elements of the movie, and yet you seem to like it anyway? Given these inconsistencies, the idea that the audience is put under a spell seems apt. Somehow the built-in pleasures of the larger franchise renders it very difficult for critics to be wholly objective.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: For me the problem with the hocus pocus isn't that it comes to their rescue but that it seems so arbitrary. One of the other scenes I like in this film is the one at the diner, because it's the equivalent of an old-fashioned Western shootout. I can't tell you that the spells they were flinging from their wands are the equivalent of bullets, but in that scene that's what it feels like. To go back to my comment in my review: in that moment, the magic seems refreshingly self-evident.

Most of the time, however, you don't know if -- to borrow from another series -- their wands are set for stun or for something else. And I've never understood why they'd need to vary their spells so much anyway. You find a spell that knocks a guy on his ass and you keep using it. You don't get style points, right?

FilmDr: There's a piece I've been wanting to write as a multi-part series since the summer (maybe over the December holidays), and one of the arguments I want to make is that too often we give established filmmakers or film series' the benefit of the doubt and connect the dots for them, even if the dots aren't connect on screen. One could easily make that argument about the Harry Potter movies. But while I think it's fair to require the movies to exist independent of the books, this is a case where I think it's impossible and essentially of little value to consider the movies independent of one another. So, you're right, one can't judge just this movie. But I suspect the film only intends to succeed in relation to the other films, and I'm OK with that. And that brings me to this ...

You do acknowledge many of the "tedious" "suffocating" and "nonsensical" elements of the movie, and yet you seem to like it anyway?

I think I like it -- to the limited degree that I do -- because to some degree I just accept Harry Potter movies are what they are. I won't entirely forgive the plot for being tedious, suffocating and nonsensical -- that's why I point that out in my review -- but, yes, I was able to look past those faults to enjoy other aspects of the film.

Sam Juliano said...

I've personally had enough, and the tedium for me was suffocating. I went in to the multiplex wanting to like it, as my kids are big fans, and I've used the first few books in my middle school classes. My 14 daughter is a HUGE fan, and I am writing this short response in fear of making her very angry, but the series had over stayed it's welcome. Yet, I know you are a VERY discerning critic who gives free passes to no movie in any sense, and the reports from most critical quarters are favorable, so the magic continues. Perhaps one day I'll survey the series again and find the artistic worth in this and other entries. My absolute favorite Potter (book and film both in fact) is #3, HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN.

Sheila O'Malley said...

I read the books. I enjoyed them. In fact, I could not put them down. I have issues, though, with the magic - as other people have mentioned. It just doesn't have that transcendent oomph of, well, MAGIC ... that would (or could) elevate the books into something much more grand. It's too deus-ex-machina, it's too technical for me to really invest in it. What I DID invest in, from the very first chapter of the first book (which, in my opinion, JK Rowling never topped in the entire series) was the character: the boy who DIDN'T die. His relationships always have some doom hanging over them because of what happened to his parents, and as the books plumbed THOSE depths, I got interested. Order of the Phoenix is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of Tween Angst. Harry becomes unpleasant, a brooding teenager, hormones surging, and mean to his friends. But Rowling "gets" that part of being a kid: how you have to go through a period of being a total monster before you can come out the other side.

Anyway: I have not seen the film yet, although I have enjoyed (in a somewhat limited fashion) the films. There are certain set-pieces that I think have been magnificently rendered, and I love love love the heavy-hitting English actors in the small roles. They help bring it to life.

But boy, I just wish the brand of magic was somehow more, well, MAGICAL.

I enjoyed your review very much. I'm interested to see the movie, as I know I will ... and I agree that it's rather hard at this point to judge them as MOVIES, standing alone. I remember going to see the second TWILIGHT movie with a friend of mine, and I was finding it lugubrious and ridiculous (totally in line with the books, which I admit I loved: lugubrious and ridiculous are not always bad things) - but I leaned over to my friend and whispered, "Okay. Just imagine now that you HAVEN'T read the books, and imagine how INSANE this movie must seem."