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HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2009)
Harry Potter’s 6th year at school is blighted by the escalating threat of Voldemort and his followers on both the wizarding and human worlds. Meanwhile Dumbledore places an increasing reliance on Harry in his efforts to destroy the Dark Lord.
The film of the penultimate Potter book is a pretty mixed bag. It has a great start with nasty wizards launching random attacks on hapless Muggles in London and a powerful ending as Harry and Dumbledore have to fight for their lives in an eerie underground lake and even within the not-so-safe walls of Hogwarts itself. There’s also a welcome return to some of the humour and lightness of earlier episodes and a less rushed feel than that of its immediate predecessor Order of the Phoenix.
Unfortunately, the often rather sedate pace does lead to the film’s momentum grinding to a halt on more than one occasion. Puppy love and the first buds of commitment are very much in the air for our teenage heroes, and although this does lead to some merriment and emotional connection, there’s a degree of repetition that leaves the nagging suspicion of deliberate padding. Occasionally you have to remind yourself what the main story is actually supposed to be about, and at 153 minutes, you do feel that the film could benefit from a 10-minute pruning.
Nonetheless, this is a film with far more positives than negatives. Prime among them is the work of director David Yates, who did a solid but uninspired job on Order but is in much more confident and creative form here. His direction, and indeed the look of the whole film, is clearly influenced by Alfonso Cuaron’s work on Prisoner of Azkaban. Like Cuaron, Yates is happy to let his establishing camera do most of the work, avoiding unnecessary close ups and excessive cross-cutting and allowing Stuart Craig’s exemplary production design to come to the fore throughout. This, along with Bruno Delbonnel’s sepia-toned photography, lends the film a distinct style of its own and establishes a believable sense of other-worldliness that’s missing from some earlier episodes of the Potter cannon.
The acting is pretty good too. The book was always Dumbledore’s show and Michael Gambon grabs his abundant meaty moments with both hands. Applause too for Tom Felton’s Draco Malfoy, mostly sidelined in recent films but here rising to his more featured role. Jim Broadbent is another welcome addition as a returning potions teacher with a dark secret of his own. Broadbent looks so much at home in the quasi-Dickensian world of Potter that you wonder why a role wasn’t found for him earlier in the series. The producers also make the correct decision to feature Helena Bonham Carter’s scene-stealing Bellatrix Lestrange much more than was the case in the book.
The three leads are, as usual, more solid than inspired, though Emma Watson seems a bit more confident here than in her last outing and there’s a welcome refocus on Ron as a vehicle to lighten the mood, which was basically his role in the early movies.
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)
Harry and Dumbledore find the wizarding world in denial over their claims that Lord Voldemort has returned. Determined to undermine Dumbledore, the Ministry of Magic places a bureaucrat inside Hogwarts expressly to gain control of the school. Meanwhile, Harry has to assemble an army of supporters in anticipation of future battles.
Order of the Phoenix is the most difficult of all the Potter novels and certainly presents the most severe filmic challenges. Ridiculously overlong, the book is largely Rowling’s lambast against increasing centralist control of schools by bureaucrats and a study of the teenage rage and isolation in Harry himself. As such, not a lot actually happens and the film-makers must have pondered long and hard on how to best adapt it.
First-time director David Yates’s choice is pretty bold – he makes a book that is four-times longer than the early adventures into the shortest film of the series so far, coming in at just over two-hours before the final credits. Order of the Phoenix is consequently a very serious film – all forward momentum and in a very definite hurry.
This approach has distinct strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, much of the peripheral flab and repetition of the book is stripped away to present a relatively fast-moving and coherent narrative. But in Yates’s obsession to prune the film to the bone, a strong element of character, emotion and suspense has been lost. There is little real interaction between the kids anymore, they just seem to hurry from scene to scene with nothing but business in mind. Even more alarmingly, most of the expensively assembled supporting cast of adult actors – whose job in the past has been to give these films a strong degree of colour and gravitas – are mostly reduced to blink-and-you’ll-miss them background dressing. The sole exceptions are Imelda Staunton, giving an impish yet sinister turn as the Ministry bureaucrat intent on taking over Hogwarts and Michael Gambon’s vigorous Dumbledore. Otherwise, stalwarts like Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman barely get a look in, while newcomer Helena Bonham Carter, debuting as Voldemort’s chief henchwoman, hardly registers in an over-edited finale.
This reduction of the Potter universe is most noticeable in the use of Gary Oldman as Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black. The development of his relationship with Harry should be central to the emotional power of the film’s climax, but the pair are only given fleeting moments together and as a result the eventual sundering of their relationship is curiously muted and uninvolving.
All in all, Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg have probably made the right decisions in turning a yawn of a book into something reasonably watchable. But it’s a rather impersonal movie that never properly engages with its audience in the way its predecessors have managed to do. You feel that the film would actually have welcomed an extra 10-15 minutes to develop its central relationships and give its finale a greater degree of suspense, excitement and tragedy.
HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005)
4th year at Hogwarts sees our 14 year old heroes thrown deep into the bear pit of sexual awakening, teenage angst and histrionic mood swings. Gangs of hormone-loaded European wizards flocking in for an inter-school tournament add to the general spirit of rivalry, confrontation and mild paranoia.
The main plot concerns a tournament in which three school champions must compete for the prestigious but highly dangerous Tri-Wizard Cup, but when the eponymous Mr Potter’s name also comes unexpectedly out of the Goblet of Fire – despite being too young to compete – ulterior motives are suspected and chips appear on many young shoulders.
Given their usual labyrinthine plots, this Potter instalment seems relatively story-light for much of its duration. It jogs along pleasantly enough, with some big set pieces like the Quidditch World Cup and the first two challenges of the Tri-Wizard tournament providing the usual effects-heavy action, but you do find yourself wondering where it is all going and just how many adolescent growing pains you can take over two and a half hours. There’s also the nagging feeling that the whole concept of the tournament simply doesn’t make sense, even in a fantasy film. I mean can we really swallow the idea of schools so willingly putting the lives of their pupils in mortal danger for the sake of a competition? Wouldn’t the parents have something to say about this – not to mention the law? Who on earth would sanction such behaviour? It reminds me of one of the chief mysteries of the whole Potter movie franchise – it’s yet to be explained what the role of wizards in the world actually is. Where did they come from? What, if any, wider global purpose do they have? What is their relationship with the ‘muggle’ world?
Anyway, while mulling all this over, the film – with about 45 minutes still to go – rather unexpectedly lifts into another gear and becomes startling, even compelling stuff. Much of the reason for this is that director Mike Newell effectively turns the last third into a full-blown horror film, with few compromises given to youthful audiences or age restrictions. A truly scary third challenge in a creepy, living maze then morphs into a graveyard confrontation with the evil Lord Voldemort – now back in physical form and helped no end by the brilliant casting of Ralph Fiennes. The usual round of intrigues, betrayals and secret agendas quickly follow and the first major death of the series heralds that a line has been crossed into more adult fare.
The acting is a big help in this movie. The kids still have their limitations though Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry now seems to have the range and confidence to cope with the more serious stuff; but it’s the supporting cast of character actors who come off best here. Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore, quietly introduced in the previous film, gets his first real chance to shine. His gruff, physical, business-like performance is quite different from Richard Harris’s more benign approach – but it gradually impresses. Brendan Gleason chews the scenery very amusingly as Mad-Eyed Moody and Fiennes’ belated but spectacular turn as the dark lord pitches the whole franchises into previously uncharted areas of pure evil and real, adult danger.
Overall, Goblet takes its time to really get going and you could argue that a lack of consistent focus is its one serious failing, but it pays off in the end and suggests even better will follow in the future.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)
Boy wizard Harry Potter finds his life in danger when a deranged prisoner escapes from Azkaban jail determined to find and kill him.
I’ve never read any of the Harry Potter books and like a lot of adults my only real knowledge of the phenomenon is through the movie adaptations. These, I’m told, are almost slavishly faithful to the books, something which appears to have pleased fans given the success of the series but not certain movie critics who lament the lack of a real cinematic re-imagining of the books. Given that the films are aimed mostly at youngsters who want to see an unambiguous translation from book to screen, I personally have no problems with the faithful approach. Anyway, it’s a no-win situation – stray too far from the literary source and you doubtless end up with the same wags moaning about the horrendous liberties taken with the cherished original.
Azkaban, the third Potter film is, I’m also told, the first to develop an original cinematic style distinctive from the books. I cannot comment on whether it takes any liberties with the plot or not, but it certainly has a more radically stylised look than its predecessors thanks to director Alfonso Cuaron’s distinctive visual style. Cuaron is definitely a production designer and cinematographer’s dream, filming constantly with wide-angle lenses and in long shot to place the environment, with all its creative wonders, firmly at the forefront of things. In many ways this purely cinematic style reminds me of Peter Greenaway’s in that it is designed specifically for the big screen, favouring the master shot over close ups and flashy editing. This technique looks ravishing in the cinema but can suffer on the small screen where, like it or not, most films spend the majority of their shelf-life.
Given the core youthful audience and the relative complexity of JK Rowling’s novels, this technique has its narrative failings. Previous director Chris Columbus may have been little more than a competent hack, but he certainly knew how to keep the story coherent and in focus. Given the levels of exposition in Rowling’s plots, its sometimes more effective for a director to swallow a little artistic pride and stage the more story-loaded scenes in a conventional style to properly introduce the many characters and keep the story elements clear. Cuaron, however, hates character-specific shots, working almost exclusively by cranes, tracking shots and hand-helds, working in and out of lengthy scenes like a tentative guest and mostly preferring to get in no closer than medium shot. While this often works very well you can’t help but wish he’d pause a bit more often just to make sure the audience catches an important piece of dialogue or better observes the introduction of the characters, who too often get swallowed up by the overwhelming sets, landscapes and effects. Nuanced acting is virtually impossible, the narrative is sometimes confused and the audience not quite sure who is doing what or why.
This failing is never more apparent than in the long-delayed introduction of the titular ‘prisoner’, Sirius Black. Despite being played by the usually magnetic Gary Oldman – an actor well used to impressing himself on visually striking backdrops – the character is instantly swamped by a succession of plot twists, special effects, production design and competing characters that render him virtually redundant before he has even been properly introduced. Julie Christie is another one who suffers in a cameo as a village innkeeper. Photographed almost entirely in long shot and through gauze, you can barely make out who she is or what significance her character has. Now I’m all for directors not ‘introducing’ stars with big flattering ‘look-at-me’ close-ups; but in a film like this, where most actors are under heavy make-up and playing genuine ‘characters’, it does serve a useful purpose.
These faults aside, there is no doubt that ‘Azkaban’ is a striking movie and one that takes the series into a darker and more adult world than before. By now, Harry and his friends have reached 13, and Cuaron, who directed the erotic road movie ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’ about adolescent awakenings, knows a thing or too about teenage turbulence. The film fairly boils over with images of pubescent emotion, anxiety and uncertainty. Just about everything in it is dark, stormy and skewed, indicating the uncertainties of adolescence and the changing perceptions of a previously more benign world. The actors too, particularly Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, have more to get their teeth into, and for the first time you rather appreciate the naturalism of their performances ahead of the mugging of the adult performers.
All in all, Azkaban is a rather giddily indulgent directors movie, pleasing for adults and film buffs but likely to be a little confusing and even frustrating for children.