Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

The End (of Over Long Titles)

Here we are. Eleven years on, a combined budget in the billions, an overall gross closer to eleven figures. There hasn't ever been anything quite like the Harry Potter movie franchise. Say what you will - and let's be honest, when it comes to Harry Potter haters are most definitely going to hate - but it's been a social phenomenon the likes of which we're unlikely to see again. Such is the overwhelming popularity of the films, like the books before them, that Harry Potter has more or less been entirely critic proof. Records were broken left, right and centre despite concerns about quality. In sheer scale terms - eight films with a predominantly child cast - it's utterly unique. Actors who were only ten when we started have shot through adolescence and into adulthood on-screen. Harry Potter, in fairness, is one hell of an epic.

If the more demanding cinema-goers and critics had anything to say about it, though, we wouldn't have gotten past part one. Harry Potter: The Movies got off to a bad start under the direction of a one Chris Colombus, who churned out two embarrassingly workman-like franchise starters. I was a twelve year old Harry Potter fanatic at the time the first was released, and even then I thought it was a piece of shit. I ignored the second (later got around to it and very much disliked it) but after assurances Prisoner of Azkaban was good, I took the risk. It was indeed good - great even. The focused direction of Alfonso Cuaron - hot off, em, Y Tu Mama Tambien - made a film that, unlike the first two painfully literal adaptations, felt like a film as opposed to a simple screen translation of the source material. After the definite highpoint of the series, the franchise settled into a steady stream of inoffensive mediocrity. We can blame J.K. Rowling for this, or more specifically the many, many people who insisted on adapting her work for the screen. The material wasn't strong enough - the often 'talky' books simply weren't easily adaptable to screen, and the increasingly heavy setup for the return of Voldemort made Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince seem unfortunately chock full o' filler. And of course, what is conjured up in a reader's imagination isn't always as compelling when shown expensively yet shoddily generated by computers.

An unlikely hero emerged out of all this however: David Yates. From Order... onwards, Yates was granted directorial control over the series, a privilege that the previous three hadn't indulged. This meant Yates had ample time to hone his skills and vision. Narrative issues aside, Yates imposed an endearingly bleak atmosphere upon the films to match the increasingly hopeless vibe of Rowling's books. This is a franchise that simply got darker and darker. By the time we reached Deathly Hollows Part One, pretty much the whole film was shrouded in greys and blacks: a surprisingly characterful approach for a multi-million dollar Hollywood epic. Unfortunately, the split of the final novel into two films meant DH1 was the most filler-tastic entry yet - the infamous 'hanging around forests' middle act of the book predictably not translating all that well. The cast was good, the direction & cinematography great - but it all felt stretched.

Not to worry, here we are, three paragraphs later, finally onto Deathly Hallows Part 2. The end. Finito. No time for catching up, straight into it! With only the barest of reminders - i.e. the closing 'cliffhanger' of part one - we're right back with Harry, Hermione and Ron tracking down Horcruxes (don't know what they are? You should have watched part one!). It quickly becomes apparent this is very much a direct continuation of part one, a single whole as opposed to two halves. This is a small problem in one respect: eight months on, it feels odd to be thrown straight into the butt end of a second act. After a relatively brief revisit to Gringott's - complete with dodgy CGI - we're back to Hogwarts and an extended finale. It's a strange and admittedly unavoidable structural flaw, but one worth pointing out - a monster five-hour Deathly Hallows mastercut is certainly something that would allow us to truly appreciate the film's overall successes.

Back in Hogwarts, there's a lot of setup for the final confrontation to get through. Indeed, the initial scenes celebrating the return of the three prodigal children are the definite highpoints of the film. A rousing welcome back, a headmaster evicted and some epic sequences showing the gaggle of wizards building up the castle defenses are genuinely exciting and engaging. When the battle inevitably arrives, it's a strangely delivered one in many ways. Many of the important deaths occur off-screen, and it's frequently interrupted by less exciting asides (a visit to a maze of lost items is significantly held back by dodgy effects). Yet for the most part it's handled with a suitably epic approach. Many of the characters get welcome moments to shine - step-up, Matthew Lewis as Neville, a surprising action hero amidst the bloodshed. And when the battle finally comes to a messy conclusion, all that's left is the final battle it's taken the guts of twenty hours screen-time to get to.

Yates, once again, is the true star here, alongside cinematographer Eduardo Serra. They create an extraordinarily grim atmosphere, occasionally penetrated by thoughtful use of colour. Indeed, one scene contains the most vivid use of white I've ever seen in cinema, all the more powerful when contrasted with the predominantly dark hues of the overall colour scheme. Another impressive scene seems to channel Sam Raimi of all people. The soundtrack from Tree of Life composer Alexandre Desplat is urgent and suitably dark. Overall, it's a film composed with an intensity to match the narrative focus. 

There's a lot of this
Flaws, though, there are a few. The cast, as always, are a mixed bunch. The main three fit snugly into their roles at this point, even if Watson and Grint have little to do here other than cozy up to each other while Radcliffe saves the day. The huge cast of talented British actors and actresses impress (Maggie Smith) and bemuse (Jim Broadbent) as always with their limited screen time, but Alan Rickman as Snape is perhaps the only side character to receive adequate levels of attention. He handles the limelight experly. However, there are also a few distractingly poor ones - again, the Irish Evanna Lynch frustrates more than bewitches as a spacy Luna. There are also some poorly delivered moments amongst the good - an infamous profanity is underwhelming on screen, and a moment where Voldemort hugs another provokes unintended giggles. Indeed, Ralph Fiennes as He Who Shall Not Me Named is a dispiriting non-presence. For a representation of all that is evil, he's surprisingly lame. It means that a sense of real threat is never as persuasive as it could be. And, of course, it would be remiss not to harshly chastise the dreadful epilogue - awful on page, awful on screen.

Concerns there are plenty, like the rest of the films that have come and passed. Yet, despite the problems, Deathly Hallows Part 2 does have more energy than would be typical of a Hollywood blockbuster. It's full of character, albeit character that the computers aren't always up to imaginatively rendering. Don't get me wrong, we're not dealing with a masterpiece here - it is only Harry fucking Potter after all, and Prisoner of Azkaban remains a firm first in terms of quality and content. Yet Yates has done much with the bloated source material he had to work with, and the result is a film that isn't half bad (although is certainly half a film). It's a welcome conclusion, and a good chance to savour the many achievements of this epic Hollywood franchise to end all epic Hollywood franchises. I thoroughly enjoyed the Deathly Hallows (Part 1 and 2) - and, eleven years after dismissing Philosopher's Stone for the junk that it is, that's a sentiment I didn't expect.


  1. I'm inclined to agree on several points- Alan Rickman was excellent (in fact, I'd argue that his few minutes in the spotlight are one of the highlights of the entire series); the Sam Raimi bit saved an otherwise poorly executed 10 mins or so; but most strikingly (and something I didn't pick up on until you mentioned it) Ralp Feinnes is pretty shit as Voldemort.

    To be fair to him, he's had some great moments as he-who-shall-not-be-named (Goblet of Fire graveyard, etc.), but in this one he gets more screen time yet seems to fall into the trap of 'relying too much on the scary makeup'.

    Shame really.

  2. Yeah Goblet of Fire probably had the benefit of the introduction to the surprisingly effective character design to see us through too. Voldemort looks evil, but doesn't really come across as the charismatic devil he should be.

  3. I completely agree with your comments on Eduardo Serra. He creates mood with his wonderful choice of colours.

    Great blog by the way!

    Barnaby Walter,
    from www.waltermedia.co.uk