The Film: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010/2011)

The Principals: David Yates (Director).  The whole damn cast is back. Everyone. Including characters that died, returning as ghosts or flashbacks. (Okay… John Cleese isn’t here, but he bolted with Christopher Columbus.) New additions are: Rhys Ifans, Ciaran Hinds and Kelly Macdonald at the last minute.

The Premise: After the tragic events that ended the previous adventure, Harry, Ron and Hermione are basically on the run trying to complete Dumbledore’s final mission – to find all the horcruxes (pieces of Voldemort’s soul) and destroy them. So that they can finally abolish the big guy himself and bring the whole show to an end. Meanwhile, Hogwarts has become a fascist prison and no one really understands why. There is much calamity and glorious battles as our heroes seek their triumph.

Is It Good: There’s no other way to put this. It is phenomenal. A sumptuous, robust adventure film – brimming with interesting characters and wonderful set pieces. (I’m not referring to it as two movies. It’s not two movies. It’s a four-and-a-half hour epic film that was given a seven-month intermission. Greed is an awful thing.)

The three leads carry the whole movie with an astonishing confidence. But, maybe not so surprising since they pretty much are these characters by now. And the supporting cast is fun to watch as usual. In particular, Rhys Ifans gets some great beats in the first half as a kind of hippie wizard. And Ralph Fiennes is finally given the chance to really chew the scenery in an even more epic way, because he has so much more screen time.

Frankly, as the adventure progresses, just about everyone is given a chance to stand out. The character of Longbottom, in particular, gets a terrific couple of beats and will be a real treat for fans who have followed the series from the very start. But he’s not the only one. Just the one that actually made me thrust my fist upwards and shout, “YES!”

David Yates cements himself as the best of the Harry Potter directors. The one who should have been doing it from the beginning. I can’t say whether or not he “gets” the books. I can judge this only as a film. And, over the course of movies 5 through 7, Yates demonstrates that he understands how to make these things work as fully contained cinematic experiences. This being his crowning achievement and, in my view, the best film in the series.

Which is not to say everything works. For instance, I’m not sure that it makes sense to have major important characters basically die off-screen like they do here. And this happens more than once. Maybe it’s like that in the book. Maybe in the first paragraph of Chapter 36, it’s: “oh, by the way, so-and-so died while you were in the bathroom.” But, for the dramatic momentum of a film, you really shouldn’t do that.

Aside from that, though, I have few complaints. The first half is a terrific road movie with spectacular vistas. The second half is a dramatic, action-packed thriller that also makes time for stirring emotion and genuinely shocking revelations. There is a sequence involving Alan Rickman (who, after being delicious throughout the series, is given the opportunity to be fucking SPECTACULAR here) that will probably be my favorite cinematic moment of 2011.

It builds carefully to a very satisfying climax and a jaw-dropping final scene that actually managed to bring tears to this cynic’s jaded eyes.

All of it is brought to life by Eduardo Serra and his richly-textured cinematography, and the pulse is kept by Alexander Desplat’s appropriately moody score that knows just when to inject knowing winks to past cues in the series – in particular the work of John Williams.

It’s a breathtaking, fabulous capper to a series that will go into the history books (more on that presently).

Is It Worth A Look: What have I been saying? YES. I would say it is worth a look or two. But, here’s the catch – Although the film by itself is a visually arresting spectacle, it really can’t be fully enjoyed if you haven’t taken the whole journey. If you haven’t followed these kids step-by-step and seen them get to this point. Good as it is, this is not a self-contained film that you can just pick up and get into. The plot will basically be impenetrable for newcomers. And, at four-and-a-half hours, it’s a lot to take in if you aren’t emotionally invested.

So, what am I saying basically? I’m saying watch the whole series if you haven’t already. Don’t cheat. Give each movie its space… Don’t be an ass. There will be things even from the second movie that get a great payoff here. Let go of your cynicism and allow yourself to get sucked in. If I can do it, so can you. It’s a piece of cinema history and you should watch these things anyway if you consider yourself a film fan in any measure. Do it!

Random Anecdote: When the title of the book/film was announced, I had no idea what it meant. I have watched the movie and I still can’t tell you what it means. …. OF COURSE I know what it “means” in the context of the film. But I still think it’s an unfathomable title. In Spanish, the title translates as Harry Potter and the Relics of Death. Although that sounds a little bit like a Fu Manchu movie, I actually think it’s a better title. And I never say that about Spanish titles for English-language films.

Final Reflections: And so… We have reached the end.

And this is where I tell you that I feel like Ebenezer Scrooge.

If you go back to the first piece I wrote in this series, you’ll see I was a bit of an asshole. I admit that. I’ve always been an asshole when it comes to these movies and I’ve never given them a fair shake. At first, I laughed them off as bloated “kiddie movies” that weren’t worth my time. As the kids got older, and the plots got darker, I shunned them as “incomprehensible geek-fests for Clerasil-deprived teenagers who couldn’t get laid.” I watched them, but only because they were there. And I never understood them. And I never wanted to.

And I was a fucking fool.

What we have here, first and foremost, is a piece of cinema history. Something that had never really been done before and, I am willing to bet, we won’t really see again. Oh, there will be attempts. Every couple of years, we’ll get a half-hearted wet fart like the Narnia films, or a complete lump of shit that goes nowhere like Eragon. But the Harry Potter series remains unique. And I expect it will remain this way for decades.

Consider that it is a series that grows up with its audience. That’s the first thing. Of course the first couple of movies are “kiddie films”… He’s eleven! I think an eleven-year-old that reads that book and watches that first movie will be in Seventh Heaven! (not the stupid show, the actual place) And, as you watch the films, you see these kids grow up. Not only the characters, but the actors themselves. There is a palpable sense that you are watching real lives unfold. Both on screen and off. You bear witness as they grow from cute little kids to strapping young men and women right before your very eyes, and it’s difficult to not get attached in some ways.

At the same time, you see them mature and grow as actors. By the last movie, the three leads are giving fully-rounded, rich performances that have nuance and character. And, if there is any doubt as to how good they really are, pay close attention to that jaw-dropping epilogue in Deathly Hallows. Some of that is admittedly fantastic effects to accomplish the illusion, yes. But most of it is pure acting of the very highest caliber. It is their acting that convinces you in that final scene… Their body language. Their attitude. Just amazing. Although it will be difficult (and perhaps even impossible) to divorce the actors from their personas in this franchise, I hope they try acting in other films and use this well-earned maturity as performers to create other great characters in diverse films. It might not happen. But I want to see it happen. I want Emma Watson to be the British Jodie Foster she’s promising to be. Take a few years off to finish her studies, and show up in her own Accused. I am sure it can happen and I hope it does.

So, essentially, you have a genre version of Michael Apted’s UP series. And that is maybe the most important way that this cinematic landmark will remain unique. But there is more to it than that. What JK Rowling accomplished, with the aid of the filmmakers who brought her world to life on screen, is very likely the most perfect entertainment package to come of age with.

What do I mean by this?

Essentially, I have a suggestion. I don’t know that the nature of patience in kids today, coupled with the easy availability of product, will make it possible – but I’d like to see someone try: What future generations of parents and their children should do, is make a special commitment to really enjoy this series in a unique way. Starting at age 11, read each book and watch each film in the series. One per year. Don’t rush through it. Give each book and movie its space. Take seven years. That’s the point. Grow up with the characters.

And parents, don’t be dicks about it. Read the books with your kids. (As they get older, some might feel silly that you’re reading to them. But you may be surprised. And there are other ways to read together.) And then sit down and watch the films with them as well… And I am pretty sure that, if you make this true commitment, you will have a very unique bonding experience. And, no, the kids shouldn’t feel silly that you’re still doing it at age 16 or 17. The point is, it can be something that you look forward to every year as part of your life experience. This series is actually designed in such a way as to make that possible, which makes it something worth treasuring. There are few truly familial experiences in today’s society. Here’s one you can make an effort to create on your own. And it will be worth it.

* * * *

Now then… From a purely artistic/cinematic/critical perspective, the film series has its share of problems. But that doesn’t detract from the importance and impact of the franchise overall.

My critical view of the films really hasn’t changed all that much. Except that, in revisiting the series, I came to treasure Michael Gambon’s work. He brings a unique energy to the role of Dumbledore that really makes him stand out from the traditional fantasy movie wizard. It’s a contemporary spin that helps ground the films in a very interesting way. I now realize that Richard Harris’s performance, while enjoyable and – as fans have said – “truer” to the book version, might have eventually become stuffy and clichéd. Though, admittedly, some of it has to do with directorial choices and the style of the films themselves. So, we’ll never know. But Gambon worked out more than fine. He’s excellent.

I completely stand by and reiterate my point that David Yates is the best thing that happened to this series. The first two films still suffer from a flat fussiness and blind devotion to the material. If the series had remained that way, it would still be valid from a sociological perspective, but I think it would not be of a very good cinematic quality and feel dated for future generations. Why dated? Because Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets already feel like they were made by Disney in the 70s is why I say “dated.”

Alfonso Cuarón came along and paved the way for a different approach, by showing just what could be done if you were more flexible in your fidelity and just tried to make a film. It was a turning point. His film remains the most singular and distinctive in the series. I didn’t say best… I don’t believe it is the best. There is an essential murkiness to the narrative that he can never overcome, but it is still a sophisticated and unique film.

Mike Newell didn’t really follow-up on Cuarón’s lead. Newell is a good actor’s director and, although he had no real experience in this genre, he had all the best technicians in the world to help him with that. So, I really think it’s because he just plain didn’t care. A lack of any real interest is, to me, what shines most starkly from his outing. He didn’t care about pacing, nuance… He let the screenplay do its work of telling the story and got the job done, going through the motions as a sort of cinematic file clerk. It’s a shapeless film. Even the stuffy Columbus films have more zap to them.

But then Yates came along and hammered it home.

Up to this point, I considered Order Of The Phoenix to be the best movie. Fans complained that the longest book in the series was made into the shortest movie. But that is precisely my point. It was an “adaptation,” not a “transliteration.” And that’s how it has to be. These are supposed to be films. Not mere visual companion pieces. By distilling the massive tome to what I imagine are the bare essentials, he made it work as a well-paced, well-plotted and – most importantly – coherent adventure film. And his subsequent work carried on in that tradition. I originally considered Half-Blood Prince “boring.” Now I realize I wasn’t paying attention. It’s a rich coming-of-age fantasy flourished with special effects. There are wonderful character moments and some very eerie, captivating scenes that make up for the lack of full-on action. It’s very solid, and it serves as an engaging prelude to Deathly Hallows, which is the very best of the lot.

It was a crass commercial decision to split Deathly Hallows into two movies, make no mistake. Though, I also understand that Warner Brothers was not going to release something mainstream in that long form. But I would like to live in a world where we can get a theatrical genre experience that isn’t afraid to be bold. There was a time when people would go to the movies and sit there for 4 hours watching things like Gone With The Wind and Lawrence Of Arabia. The other day, I thrilled with friends as we gave ourselves a “roadshow” experience watching Once Upon A Time In America in one sitting.

I wish Deathly Hallows could have been like that. It deserved to be. And I am sure that people will watch it as one film from now on.

* * * *

It’s hard to say what happens now. Will Rowling revisit this world in 20 years? I hope she does, if only for one book/film, because I want to see this world again, particularly from the sort of perspective that a “20 years later” reunion could bring.

Whatever happens, her place in history is assured. And her work gave way to a very special piece of cinema that will be a part of our cultural landscape for generations, deservedly so. It’s a remarkable achievement.

I have seen the light. And I am grateful for that.