Saturday, 20 November 2010
I greeted the announcement that the "Deathly Hallows" novel would be sliced in half for its cinema outing with such typically cynical sneers as "Warners are just frightened that their cash cow is being put out to pasture and are milking it for all it's worth. I bet they'll make it 3D n'all!", and "the first film will be dull as ditchwater, nothing happens until the end of the book!".
Warners have since decided against 3D for this installment, claiming they didn't have enough time for the conversion, and the movie actually managed to smack down my jeering derision.
I think this is the best Harry Potter film yet.
Now, that may not be saying too much, as the previous films have ranged from dull essays on the source material, through passable attempts at cinemising the often absurdly involved world of JK Rowling, to entertaining family adventure fare, and on into goofy, directionless teen comedy. "Deathly Hallows" feels different. It feels like a film.
This change is apparent from the outset, as the typical foggy logos make way for a pre-title sequence that is both emotional kick-off and statement of intent. We see Harry's fat-head family bundled out of their house because it's "not safe anymore", minus the muted reconciliation of the book, and we meet Hermione's parents for the first time, only for her to zap them with a brain-fucking spell that erases her from their memories and their family photos in one fell swoop. It's an emotionally engaging and punchy opening which resonates with the sense of immediate doom that has been promised since Voldemort came back to life at the end of the fourth film and ruined Edward Cullen's hair.
This is followed swiftly by a council-meeting with Voldemort and his evil bitches which is highly reminiscent of the scene in "The Untouchables" which culminates in Bobby D hitting a home-run with some geezer's brain-box. It is apparent that all but the most stupid and/or psychotic of the The Dark Lord's underlings are absolutely terrified, making him all the more unpredictable and sinister. After a bit of torture, anti-muggle racism and snake-feeding, we are left in no doubt that shit is serious this time round.
We rattle on from there to a wacky scene involving multiple Harrys, which soon segues into a frenetic, broom-based air-battle which then mutates into a break-neck moped-chase sequence complete with flipping vehicles, people being knocked off brooms into traffic, Harry running on the roof of a bus, and the deaths of two beloved characters. This is a pacey, kinetic, emotionally-charged sequence unlike anything seen in Potter before, and bodes well for what's to come.
This standard is maintained fairly well for the rest of the film, as Harry, Ron and Hermione go on the run from Voldemort's fascist regime, disappearing into the English countryside like guerrillas in the mist.
This was what I thought would pose a major problem for the momentum of this film. Here we have three friends wandering the wilderness, ostensibly searching for the hilariously-monikered "Horcruxes" that contain parts of Voldemort's soul. The problem being that they don't know what or where these mysterious objects are, so they are pretty aimless for a large part of the novel, and spend most of their time arguing with each other and listening to the radio.
Director David Yates circumvents the potential pitfalls very well, punctuating the wanderings with barn-storming setpieces such as a tense and amusing raid on the Ministry of Magic (which features a brilliant pay-off for a hateful character who got off lightly in an earlier film), and a visit to the deathplace of Harry's parents which results in a sequence of such fairytale horror that it wouldn't be out of place in a Guillermo Del Toro film. It's all creepy old women and shadowy atmosphere, before it explodes into blood, smashing through walls, swinging lampshades and Harry bricking a giant snake in the head.
It's Yates's handling of sequences like this that sets the film apart from its predecessors so distinctly. There are small moments of action, such as a brief wandy shoot-out in a cafe, that are more visceral and exciting than even the biggest thrills from the past films.
He also has the balls to insert an animated interlude to deal with an expository fairy tale read by Hermione. It's like some sort of grim shadow-puppet show involving murder, suicide, treachery and Death himself, and is both eerily beautiful and perfectly judged.
But it's not just Yates who's raised his game. The central trio of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint are out on their own for most of the film, without the usual rogues' gallery of British acting talent to fall back on, and they actually acquit themselves very well. I usually spend a Potter film sneering at the fumbled jokes, the forced emotion and Hermione's hyperactive eyebrows, but this time around they managed to almost entirely humanise their characters, realise their emotional interaction and create three-dimensional people out of these household names. And the eyebrows have calmed down a lot.
That's not to say that there's no acting legends in attendance at the Potter-party, though. Rhys Ifans gives good loony as the crazy Irish blonde girl's crazy Irish dad, Bill Nighy does his thing in a sturdy two-scener, Peter Mullen brings a rare sense of palpable physical threat to a minor baddie role, and many familiar faces crop up for their usual reliable extended cameos (David Thewlis, Alan Rickman, Snake-Faced Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane et al.).
The effects are stronger than ever, the cinematography refreshingly earthy and the sets and locations vibrant and varied. If nothing else, it's a nice-looking film.
The watchword for each consecutive Potter episode is "darker", and that is certainly the case here. As our leads appear more and more grown up (Hermione noticeably more "womanly", and Harry and Ron rocking some 5 oclock shadow after weeks in the wilderness), so do themes and imagery. When Ron's terminal insecurity manifests itself as a naked Harry and Hermione getting down to some heavy petting, you know a line has been crossed. This is a film laden with death, violence, suffering, and more than mild threat.
It is in the lighter moments, however, that the film truly transcends its station. This is, more often than not, through the handling of the ever-alluded to romance between Ron and Hermione, depicted perfectly here in tiny gestures, looks and a brief moment where she tries to teach him to play the piano.
The most memorable character scene, however, belongs to Harry and Hermione, as they dance together (to a Nick Cave song, mind!) in a tent. This short scene contains more subtle, unspoken profundity than many films manage in a whole runtime. It manages, for a moment, to create a will-they/won't-they uncertainty even in those who know the story, but serves ultimately to only reinforce the true nature of their relationship. It's a complex scene which goes above and beyond what you'd expect from a Potter film, and deserves to be applauded.
There are, of course, flaws and problems to be found, however. In spite of Yates's best efforts, the second act drags occasionally as the trio mope around in the woods until one of them says "I think we should go HERE..." in order to find the next bit of plot, and there is the argument that we are only getting half a movie, which can never be a fully satisfying cinematic experience. Heyman has managed to structure the film in such a way as to build to an emotional climax, if not a resolution.
I have seen comparisons made with "The Empire Strikes" back, and that's not far off the mark. Both films consist of the heroes being beaten back, running scared and narrowly escaping for the duration, before a "down" ending leaves them in a very bleak situation indeed. It's exactly what family cinema should be about!
If you're not a Potter fan, this isn't going to convert you, laden as it is with obscure references and exposition, and it does benefit from a knowledge of the extensive backstory they are building to the climax of, but this remains an entertaining and engaging fantasy adventure that left me anticipating the finale. If Yates can do this with the boring part of the book, what's he gonna do when it all kicks off?