Dir:- David Yates
Starr:- Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton, Matthew Lewis, Warwick Davis, Michael Gambon
Note:- Spoilers contained throughout this review. Alas, I’m in a Grinch-mood it would seem, so this is another of my unkinder reviews. In my defence I simply write it as I see it.
Well the Great British Actor’s Pension Plan has finally drawn to a close, with perhaps only Keith Chegwin and Les Dennis failing to benefit. After over sixteen hours of cinema Harry Potter’s ‘dramatic’ adventures as the world’s most unjustly lauded adolescent have come to a cringe-worthy anti-climax. The final shocking revelation? Well, erm, Daniel Radcliffe makes a pretty convincing middle-class thirtysomething parent, which is a whole lot more than can be said for the rest of his performance throughout J.K. Rowling’s beloved children’s saga. Put frankly, Daniel Radcliffe cannot act. At intermittent moments in this final, almost entirely unnecessary, installment of the great Harry Potter love-in Radcliffe does show a modest flair for comic timing that may mark out a future lower profile career as a modern British version of eighties dork-to-order Rick Moranis. However, what had become painfully clear by about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is confirmed here, Radcliffe just doesn’t have the necessary presence or gravitas to carry off a mature and conflicted central protagonist. In the first three features Radcliffe got by on being relatively cute and absurdly close to Rowling’s vision of the prepubescent wizard. But by the second half of the saga, with puberty kicking in, Radcliffe’s short stature and catastrophic lack of charm seriously hampered a series that had always been about Harry, but was now almost entirely devoted to substantial sections of screen-time dwelling on the vapid thespian talents of its lead.
The myriad failings that can be found in the Harry Potter series go far beyond Radcliffe’s woefully inept turn, although this perception of the series as a relative failure may well be a generational thing. Having read only excerpts from the original novel this review is not meant to be a damning indictment of Rowling’s literary work, but rather focuses exclusively upon the movies. From the very first Chris Columbus directed day-glo dippy film there seemed a curious lack of tension and momentum in Harry Potter’s ‘quest’. As was noted in a previous review of this opening feature Harry Potter seems a very modern child protagonist, almost narcissistically self-involved, incomprehensibly seen as the centre of the universe and overcoming every challenge placed in his way without really having to try too hard, or develop too much. This is heroism devoid of personal growth, a cipher-hero who simply attains ‘champion’ status without having to do anything of distinction to warrant it. Yes, Harry is seen battling all manner of CGI guff, but rarely is he victorious by using skills that he has had to strive hard to achieve, more often action set-pieces unfurl, only to be nipped in the bud with ridiculous ease, by a choice spell, or daft combination of objects, that could have been carried out by anyone (and often is).
There is also a weirdly bland depiction of ‘democracy’ at work throughout the series, which reaches its apogee in the truly awful denouement of the double-length Deathly Hallows, whereby Neville Longbottom’s common-as-muck Northern realist (think a slender, elongated and equally preternaturally aged Phil Kay wannabe) dispatches the final Horcrux (has there ever been a bigger ‘crock of’ in any kids quest?) and then Harry Potter, having finally defeated Voldemort, opts to break the prestigious Elder Wand in two and throw it away. The subtext here appears to read that it is better to be one of the many and share equal power, than grasp for some higher authority and rule. As much as these are admirable sentiments, Harry Potter’s combination of dull, accountant/estate agent charisma and almost sexless physicality, makes the camp ambiguities of Alan Rickman’s heroically elitist Snape, or Tom Felton’s Draco Malfoy far more intriguing, thus diminishing the effect of such a transparent appeal to equality.
A lot of column inches have been exhausted in the British media about what a fabulous job the previously unheralded English filmmaker David Yates has made of transferring the darker tones of the later Potter novels to the big screen. Yet surely the most completely realised and effective of all the films was the Alfonso Cuarón directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Apparently this third feature treacherously deviated from the source novel (surely something to be expected when switching between mediums) meeting with the considerable ire of Potterite devotees. Yet compare the manner in which Cuarón manages to incorporate character elements into a neatly paced plot, without sacrificing an ounce of the unique atmosphere he created for the film (something that even shows in the intricacy and ingenuity of the end credits sequence), with the manner in which Yates singularly fails to make much of the more affecting material in the final four movies count. Embarrassingly there is a ten minute sequence in Deathly Hallows, Part II that manages to give more inventively constructed plot elements and character background, than pretty much all of the rest of the movies that Yates was assigned to. It’s not that Yates is necessarily a bad director, but he is merely workmanlike and rather pedestrian, whereas Cuarón brought a masterly cinematic aesthetic to the mix. It is hard to envisage the Spaniard settling on the clichéd use of yet further Lord of the Rings style CGI battle sequences, let alone managing to make them so terribly uninvolving. Rather than fearing for the wellbeing of Harry and his intrepid band of cheerleaders (yes Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley is back to simply exclaiming what the audience should be feeling about the latest bozo SFX sequence, ‘Brilliant!’) the viewer is utterly detached and divorced from the action, leaving the troubling whiff of modern-day news coverage about proceedings. Whilst all around is being laid waste, it is very difficult to relate to this violence in any meaningful and empathetic manner. Yes, this is children’s fantasy literature, but isn’t there something just a little off about the cold remoteness with which the audience is asked to view this carnage?
During the quest for the undiscovered Horcruxes, which has taken up the narrative of the last three movies, Harry, Hermione and Ron are frequently given little cut-away moments to unconvincingly fill in narrative leaps. These tend to take the form of an absurd eureka moment, usually inspired by some random jump of logic performed by the increasingly underused Emma Watson. This gives the action sequences the feel of a particularly fantastical episode of The Crystal Maze, begging the question who is Richard O’ Brien? The way in which Harry becomes the only show in town also robs the films of any sense of ambiguity, or more complex humanity. The manner in which Watson, by far the best of the young actors, is completely sidetracked during the second half of the saga, only emphasizes the ridiculously limited focus and ambition of the Potter story, whilst simultaneously robbing the audience of sympathetic supporting characters that they can invest some degree of emotional commitment in. All character arcs seem to be sacrificed to the convergence-effect of Harry and Voldemort’s stultifying final face-off, which only goes to illustrate how monotonous the narrative is. So much of this final chapter seems hell-bent on inducing sleep in the viewer, despite the swooping crane shots during the battle sequences or the wholly unterrifying and lifeless use of dragons and giants. Even the supposedly insidious voiceover from Ralph Fiennes pantomime dame of a villain, appears primed only toward beckoning in the Land of Nod that little bit sooner. If this is indeed inspiring fantasy fare for children then precisely how dull is 21st century childhood?
Yates does strive for a solemn moment of cod-philosophising late on. With Harry Potter finally dying (alas, not for good) and being reunited with one of the few genuinely textured characters, namely Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore. Master and pupil are brought together in a blanched approximation of Channel 4’s The Word set, which may or may not be the most lifeless rendering of heaven ever seen on the silver screen. After a mundane exchange about the whole thing resembling King’s Cross Station, only without the trains, Harry and Dumbledore get down to more profound and weightier concerns. With Harry getting as existential as Radcliffe’s limited acting abilities will allow, he mentions that this all feels as if it is happening inside his head (a rather staggering acceptance of the solipsistic narcissism at the series’ core) and not actually occurring in ‘reality’. Dumbledore comes back with a line that Yates’ own directorial limitations can’t help but ghost in on-screen quotation marks: “Of course it’s happening inside your head Harry, but why should that mean it is not real?”. I’m sure that many a ‘pseud’ could parlay that particular nugget of wisdom into some lifeless culture-section piece, or pop tome on Potter and Philosophy, but really it warrants about as much attention as the underwhelming second-half of the Potter saga in its entirety. Within modern market conditions whereby a literary franchise such as Rowling’s can be converted into a multiple media platform cash cow, there seems an expediency toward good old-fashioned waffle and padding, where in previous generations an editorial scalpel may have been dispatched to rend unwanted verbiage from its sticking place. This is ultimately narrative’s loss, but as long as the box office tills keep a-ringing and Amazon enjoy hefty pre-orderings then what incentive brevity and story integrity?