Friday, July 15, 2011

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2"

We came a little late to the Harry Potter books, but we had started them by the time the first movie came out 10 years ago. It has been a journey that marked the childhood of both of my kids and reminded me so much of what it was that I loved about reading when I was young. There is adventure and heroism and the fantasy that the world around us had secrets which at any moment could change our lives. The accomplishment of the books is one of the great stories of success that an individual writer can take credit for. J.K. Rowling's imagination grew with each volume and the story came together in a coherent way that made the previous stories more meaningful. That it became a worldwide phenomena and that she became the most financially successful author in history, will deserve it's own books and movie at some future date. To take the next step and create the films was a shrewd move on the part of Warner Brothers and the producers. I don't think that it was as big a gamble as many would believe because of the incredible impact the books had, this was a series of works far more likely to have a wide audience than any other literary work that had come along before.. For me, the audacity of the project was to attempt to film it using the same group of young actors as they grew up. There have been eight movies over the course of 10 years. Rowling was able to take her time getting a new book out, and the audience would be waiting and begging for the next installment. Because there were already three books written when the film series started, there was plenty of time to develop each screenplay and plan the next movie. The books promoted the next movie which created anticipation for the next book until all of the novels were written and we could hardly stand the wait for the movies to catch up. Now that we have, it is a meal to savor but one on which there is the foreknowledge that no dessert is coming. That means we should eat this up as much as we can now.

In preparation for seeing Deathly Hallows Part 2, I went back and watched the earlier seven movies. It is clear how the story started off and a children's fantasy and grew darker with each chapter. Kids grow up, and the simple world they lived in fades each day with new challenges. The Potter films did the same thing. There are the uncertainties of social status and friendship in the first two books. The threat is an indirect one, where the kids challenge is slow to build and fast to finish. When we got to the third story, it was a long threat that Harry faced, and it was part of everything he did in the film. Quidditch became less a game and more a moral challenge to the hero. It disappears entirely in the fifth film and returns briefly as part of a adolescent growth story for Harry's friend Ron. Up to this point he has been a sidekick in the whole story. Sure there were important things for him to do, but it was always Harry's story. With the fifth, sixth and seventh films, the characters of Ron and Hermione become equal parts of the story. It is right that they choose to leave Hogwarts with him and go in pursuit of the Horcruxes. To do so though, they have to have stories on a level with Harry to make us care. For me, the saddest part of the whole film series is the pre-title sequence on Deathly Hallows Part one, when Heromine erases her very existence from her parents lives. It will be as if she never existed, this was a grown up sacrifice to protect them from the dark Lord, and a step into a story where it is not certain that everything will come out OK. From the time Cedric Diggory's story is completed in the Goblet of Fire, it is never clear that there will always be a happy ending. The fifth through seventh films all end with the loss of important characters. They are not going to be magically resurrected like Spock in the science fiction films of Star Trek. We see them briefly in many other contexts, but it is clear they are gone and it is the work of Voldemort.

The first time I saw part one of Deathly Hallows, I was uncertain about how I felt about the movie. It does not feel complete, there were many sections of introspective sadness hanging over it, and the friendship of our three heroes was tested in dramatic ways. It really is a lot of set up for the final movie. The more I watched it however the clearer it became that it was an excellent film. There are some great sequences and the actors step forward as adults for the first time. It is an adult story that is only possible if you went on the journey through the previous stories as well. Thursday night, we went to a screening of Part One at nine o'clock, to be followed by the mid-night screening of part two. This was a smart choice on our part because it really is one long story and they fit together so well. There are payoffs that come in part two that mean more because you just saw the first part. The characters growth was easier to see and the drama is more satisfying.

Speaking of long set ups, it is now time to get to our current film. If you have read any of my postings before, you know that I go out of my way to avoid spoilers. I don't want to recap the whole story in a couple of paragraphs and then give you a thumbs up or down. I will stick to that formula, but be aware that some elements of the films quality can only be discussed in the context of story. I don't want to be the tool that drives by a Harry potter Book Release line, shouting out that "_____________ dies". So, there is a fairly quick but very well conceived raid on Gringott's to retrieve another Horcrux. The visuals on this actually exceed my imagination from reading the book. The sequence does not have a huge amount of suspense in it because it is happening so early in the film, we know that it is a step and not a destination. It was still quite exciting and it resolved the plot points of Olivander and the Goblins, quickly and efficiently. There were so many stories from the book that were essential to the action, I was not sure they could do them and make the movie work. Dumbledore's brother and family background are covered in the minimum amount necessary. The whole issue of his connection to the Deathly Hallows and his victory over the Dark wizard Grindlewald are basically expunged. The movie ships large segments of Hogwarts activities to keep the story on Harry but we get some fantastic visualizations of a student life under the cloud of death eater control of the Ministry of Magic and the school. Just a couple of long shots of students marching to the Great Hall, convey the essentials of what has been going on. The back story of the Hogwarts resistance is also lost and we dive into Harry's return to the school and the final confrontation very quickly.

Two fast audience rousing moments occur almost immediately. Harry reveal himself and McGonnagal shows us that she is a formidable opponent not only for the students but adults as well. There was a great cheer when Snape is driven out of the Hall. It is also so interesting that within a short time we reverse our positions and our view of Snape is altered forever. I wanted the sequence with Snape and his memories to live up to my imagination, and the screenwriter and actor do that exactly. This film series has been top notch but has largely been ignored by the film industry when it comes to awards. It is my hope that Alan Rickman will become the actor that receives recognition for his work in the series at next years award season. He has built this character so carefully and in line with the books that when his chance to make it comes, it pays off in spades. As powerful as Harry's story is, and the tears that came with Hedwig and Dobby, this is the most emotional plot element in the series. The coda segment in the book is one section I cannot read out loud without my voice breaking. The few sentences we get 19 years after the end of the story are the most moving tribute to a character I can imagine. If all of us could see the past as clearly we would all be better people.

I looked forward to several moments in the film, and not all of them made it into the story. The battle for Hogwarts actually takes up most of the movie and there is still not time to tell everything. I will say that Mrs. Weasly lived up to my imagination in her fury at Belatrix LaStrange. Malfoy's situation was actually more satisfying to me in the film than in the books. He is still not anyone that you would love, but Harry and Ron's capacity for goodness is illustrated in the most difficult of curcumtances and there was a final benefit that plays it's part in the ultimate confrontation with harry and Voldemort. Neville Longbottom is a character that is so much richer in the books and was largely shunted aside in the movies. He does however get to be the figure he deserves in a key role in the battle. Remember the sword of Griffindor can present itself to any worthy Griffindor in time of need and we know definitively that Neville is worthy after what we see here.

The whole sequence of Harry's confrontation with Voldemort is done in great style and give Daniel Radcliffe a chance to show he is a real actor. He has grown immensely as a performer, and his maturity has matched the stories very well. He needs to be the central Hero and he comes off as heroic, not like someone playing at being a hero, but like someone ready to make an incredible sacrifice. Ralph Finnes, invisible behind the make-up and digital magic, makes Voldemort a more complete villain. There were several points in the eight movies where we got a chance to see how he became what he was. At an early point in the series, Dumbledore tells Harry that it is our choices that define us. We see several places where Tom Riddle made the wrong choices and sealed his doom as Lord Voldemort. Fiennes make an all powerful dark wizard frightening but also incredibly needy. There is a skilled performer there that is not just cashing a paycheck or working out of a sense of obligation to a project he was invited to be a part of. He works the part and gets results that lesser actors would make into a cliche.

Back after the third film came out there was talk that Emma Watson might not do the rest of the films. We are so lucky she stayed on board because the chemistry she and Radcliffe and Rupert Gint have together as Heromine, Harry and Ron, sustains a lost of exposition and quick storytelling. Ron's character is a grown up at the end as well, and another one of those satysfying audience moments is the kiss Hermione and Ron share briefly during the battle. It did not come off as contrived but rather quite genuine. The one key player in the ten year span of the films that had to be replaced was Richard Harris as Dumbledore. I would never say his death was a blessing, but it did lead to a strong actor being cast in a role very effectively. In the long run Michael gambon will always be the Dumbledore that I see in my head as I re-read the books. He was here in the pensive and in a sustained sequence in the afterlife. All of those moments were stronger because he was there.

I am incredibly happy with the way the films have come out. I do like some better than others but all have been amazing. To tell this story as we see the main charcters actually grow up in front of us is one of the great serendipitious achievements of all cinema history. To mount these movies in a ten year period and sustain the quality and committment to the stories is something we may never see again. I am very sad to be saying goodby to everyone in this series. When we were seated in the theater, my wife and I sat next to each other but to be in the row we wanted, we ended up seperated from our kids (now 23 and 24)by the wheelchair spaces. Dolores asked Amanda if she wanted to sit next to me, but she said that she wanted to sit next to her sister as her childhood came to an end. I am so gald we all got to share this experience for the last ten years together. We will see this again with some friends that we have gone to all the other films with, but our family history with Harry potter is now complete. My heart was full but a little heavy as my fatherhood with just kids also closes.

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