Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Week With a Wizard, Day 8: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]

Amid the apocalyptic overtones of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, a moment of real magic and rare levity occurs when Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), after summoning an army of knight statues to protect Hogwarts from impending attack, excitedly admits, “I’ve always wanted to do that spell!” Yes, professor, and we’ve always wanted to see you perform it; or, at least those of us who have slogged through seven books and seven movies. To see Maggie Smith deliver these words with the wonderment of a child fittingly captures the sentiments many viewers will have about seeing this long film journey reach its end. Most of the characters shown in the moments to follow—as an orb-like shield slowly forms around the castle—have either played a key role in one entry in the series or have been in the background through many of them. But that hardly matters; because after so many films these faces become embedded in a world we have seen unfold across a decade’s worth of cinema.

The aforementioned scene is a microcosm for Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Director David Yates seems to want this final installment in the series to capture the excitement of the moment but also to strike up nostalgia for all that has gone before. It achieves both of these in various moments throughout, but it doesn’t quite sync with what has building in the previous two or three films, somewhat to my disappointment. To try to make sense of this requires some back-pedaling, if you will indulge me. I have written these commentaries from the perspective of knowing many of the ins and outs of author J.K. Rowling’s opus. I have argued that as the films have grown more confusing to those who have not pored over the novels, they have grown more interesting filmically on a roughly parallel track. Despite the often-clunky writing and plotting, each of the films (perhaps with the exception of Goblet of Fire) dating back to Prisoner of Azkaban has developed its own beat and affective state. I have noted previously that Alfonso Cuarón's Azkaban will likely be recalled as the film that allowed much of this to happen.

When Yates took over the series, he imbued it with a serious, unsentimental approach that at first (in Order of the Phoenix) mimicked Cuarón's style but then developed into something more his own. Yates’ films each have their own personality while still upholding a broadly low-key, expressive visual approach that reached its apex with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. For the most part, these later entries have been light on action, while heavy on drama, mood and characterization, allowing for Yates’ aesthetic to evolve. (Much to the chagrin of a good deal of fans, screenwriter Steve Kloves and Yates opted to jettison the battle Rowling penned for the climax of Half-Blood Prince in favor of giving more prominence to the loss of Dumbledore.) As the stakes have increased with regards to the narrative arc, the films have turned more inward, giving us aching images and forming melancholy states the likes of which few commercial films aspire to. If you cast narrative aside, the later entries in particular are intricate, even beautiful works.

Deathly Hallows: Part 2, although a direct continuation of the story, represents a shift in an approach that seemed carefully constructed in previous efforts. It finally delivers the bloodshed and warfare long foreshadowed, and it doesn’t skimp on either. A great early shot of Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) blood-covered feet as he gingerly walks about the countless goblins he’s just murdered sells this point effectively. Not surprisingly, this final installment of the series contains no less exposition than its predecessors and is equally confusing in story details. In this manner, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 falls in line with previous efforts. (To better understand this phenomenon, see Matt Zoller Seitz’s dialogue with his daughter Hannah over at Edward Copeland On Film.) But in living up to its marketing aphorism of “It All Ends,” and hurling as many familiar images and faces at us that it can muster, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 feels very self-aware as to its role as the conclusion of an eight-film journey. Its overt acknowledgment of this fact interrupts the subtle, somber state the series was moving towards. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is an orgy of activity and nostalgia, with Fiennes’ gleefully demonic impression of Voldemort at its center. And while Fiennes is great fun to watch in the role, we realize that Voldemort isn’t a terribly interesting character, which is a good analogy for the film. The battles are indeed impressive, but they tend to throw off the narrative and aesthetic shades that have grown over the course of the more recent entries.

Deathly Hallows: Part 2 starts with a brief excursion in the caverns beneath London, but soon directs its focus to Hogwarts, where professors and students prepare for the last stand against Voldemort and his army. The stretched-out action set piece that takes up a majority of the middle section is a work of fine filmmaking craft and design, and it is seen mostly through the eyes of the central characters. Yates generally avoids elongated shots of devastation and instead navigates the activity and carnage from the ground level but without forgetting the scale of the proceedings. Save for its slower start, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 moves with such certitude that one can easily excuse the writing/plotting problems that have marred previous installments and are again on display here. The aura of urgency building with each passing scene is palpable given that Yates guides the action so assuredly. Questions of horcruxes and wand ownership dominate the film, again, as they did the previous two installments, so it is a credit to Yates that he manages to steer these entries away from drowning in their own exposition.

The soul of the film concerns not horcruxes or Harry’s showdown with Voldemort, but a character whose significance to the overall narrative was thought to be secondary. Regrettably, I have made only passing mention of Alan Rickman's portrait of the character of Snape over the course of these articles. Snape has been one of the very few secondary roles to take on a life beyond his short appearances in the films. Rickman’s stunted inflections and cold stares manage to be both menacing and humorous. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 finally provides Rickman the opportunity to stretch his acting muscles and show the vulnerable man beneath the façade. The most affecting moments in the film involve Snape, from his grisly death—which is obscured visually, but powerfully conveyed with sound—to a montage of memories that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) witnesses showing the deep love Snape had for Harry’s mother. Yates recognizes that Snape’s story is the core of this film, as well as the broader story, which in part explains why the opening shots are devoted to him. However, because these scenes are so moving, the tale of Snape’s tragedy tends to amplify the weaknesses of the main conflict between Voldemort and Harry. When their wands finally connect in the final act, the effect is surprisingly mute. That’s because the recent movies have not been about the eventual showdown between good and evil. They have instead focused on the pain, suffering, and remorse of the people who must fight the war.

For Harry’s part, a few moments before his final confrontation with Voldemort offer a bookend to the interweaving themes of memory and death evident in the later entries. “Does it hurt?” Harry Potter asks his godfather, Sirius (Gary Oldman), who, along with Harry’s parents, has been resurrected to accompany Harry in his last moments of life. Harry has witnessed the deaths of so many loved ones in his young years and has likely felt the pain of death more than anyone else. Now resigned to it, Harry’s matter-of-fact question as to the sensation of life escaping the body is a reflection of Yates' quietly understated approach both aesthetically and affectively over his four films. It is one of the subtle, but shattering moments that permeates the later entries, amounting to a moving rumination on death. Aside from these calmer moments, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 expends much of its energy on battles and spells. Interspersed with these are a handful of nice character moments serving to boost the nostalgia factor, and perhaps deservedly so. While Yates doesn’t do anything shockingly out of turn with the film, I found myself struggling to connect with the epic, symbolic conflict and was more interested in the smaller moments.

While my reservations for Yates’ final chapter stem from its positioning in relation to his previous efforts, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is a notable achievement in commercial moviemaking and a pretty solid rebuke to the current Hollywood system of assembly-line blockbusters. In her review of Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Manohla Dargis observes that the Harry Potter series has “affirmed that the relationship between mass art and its consumers is at times incredibly rich.” And what makes this series especially interesting and worthwhile is how it has progressed through the hands of several filmmakers and a steady cast of young and veteran actors. Unlike its modern equivalent, The Lord of the Rings, which were assembled by the same creative team over a much shorter time period, the Harry Potter series has evolved on-screen, maintaining several consistencies and curious inconsistencies. I wish that the films were not as beholden to Rowling’s twisting (albeit compelling) novels. Nevertheless, despite the frequent confusion that accompanies the watching of these films, the long view reveals a series that has remained focused on characters, feeling and filmmaking craft, while often telling this classically inspired story with wit and nuance. That the imperfections are on such naked display only adds to the richness of the mosaic.

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