The second half of the Harry Potter series is in many ways far more interesting than the first, particularly on the screen. All these upcoming films were directed by David Yates, a man not particularly famous for a few TV movies and miniseries, including the excellent State of Play. But more interestingly, it’s with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that the actual story of Harry Potter begins. It turns out, everything that’s come before has been setup. Now, Lord Voldemort is risen, the wizarding world is in crisis, and Harry and his friends are in far more serious danger than before.
More interesting to me, though, is the fact that, apart from some elements of the story here and there, I didn’t really know what was going to happen watching these. As I said in my last post, I had read up to Goblet of Fire, and I’m fascinated to see how this would affect my experience of these films. The books are all over 600 pages, so the films have an awful lot of plot to get through, and I’ve no doubt that there will be some shorthand used in translation from page to screen. But how much, and whether it ruins the experience, is crucial to assessing these films as films, rather than just companions to the books.
Suffice to say, spoilers abound coming up.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Order of the Phoenix opens with a sequence that feels totally unlike anything that has come before it – Harry and Dudley Dursley are besieged by some unrobed, skeletal Dementors in broad daylight, in the Muggle world. The skies are grey, the perspective is forced, and the sense that everything has suddenly, abruptly changed is pervasive.
Its this reason that I found Harry Potter’s fifth instalment, for all its flaws, absolutely thrilling. It’s absolutely unrecognisable from the cartoonish Columbus films, instead taking an abrupt turn towards darker, more dangerous storytelling. This isn’t the only abrupt change, though. After three directors who have never seemed entirely comfortable with the subject matter they’re dealing with (even when they’ve been successful), David Yates’s hand seems remarkably assured and steady, and not only that, he has style to boot. Many moments in Order of the Phoenix are absolutely gorgeous, in particular the battle in the Hall of Prophecy, where the Hogwarts kids stave off Death Eaters that appear out of the darkness in silence like creepy, ghostly apparitions. The new additions to the cast are more than welcome, too, especially Imelda Staunton as the sadistic bureaucrat-cum-teacher Dolores Umbridge, and the delightfully unhinged Helena Bonham Carter as Belatrix Lestrange.
For all it’s formal overhauls and welcome change in tone, though, the film has some pretty major shortcomings, particularly in its attempts to condense its mammoth source material into a coherent film. Some of the tricks he employs are neat, like using newspaper headlines to take care of some of the important stuff that’s going on away from the main characters – this is the first film that’s directly concerned with the larger world that Rowling’s been building – but whilst the whirlwind of incident can at times be exciting, it often means that important elements get left out.
Indeed, this is the first film that really relies on you having knowledge of the books. Yates does right by his source material visually, I think – the Orwellian Ministry of Magic is particularly well realised – but he makes no effort to distinguish the film from the novel, content instead to cater to fans who just want to see their beloved series brought to life on screen. At its worst, Order of the Phoenix seems to merely go through the motions. His visual style may be elegant and assured, yes, but sometimes that gives way to cold and clinical, and sadly, one of those moments is Sirius Black’s death. When Diggory died in Goblet of Fire, the emotion that suddenly poured off of the screen was aback-taking. Here, with a death that should sting all the more, there’s very little sense of momentousness.
For all its problems, though, the film left me very excited as to where we were going next, simply because it now feels like we’re watching a very different kind of film. The first four films, for all their whispers of evil and darkness yet to come, were essentially boarding school fantasies. Now we’re dealing with something far more complex and more epic. The storytelling and direction may not have the grace that Prisoner of Azkaban did, but it’s clear we’re now dealing with a far greater beast.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Where Order of the Phoenix suffered from far too much going on, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince suffers from too little. It’s the most divisive of the Potter films – some people love it for the way it lets the plot take the back seat to a more expressive, emotion-driven style, while others say that it’s meandering and shapeless. Sadly, I think I fall into the latter camp.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to admire here – indeed, the latter half of the series is far more reliable in tone than the first. It’s just that, with no discernible plot to speak of and no overarching MacGuffin, like a Chamber of Secrets or a Tri-Wizard Tournament, the film struggles to make any strong statements at all. Instead, we have a host of smaller subplots vying for our attention: Ron and Harry’s romantic engagements; Hermione’s pining for Ron; Draco’s wrestling with his conscience as he prepares to kill Dumbledore; Harry’s discovering of a potion textbook belonging to a “Half-Blood Prince” full of dangerous spells; Dumbledore and Harry’s relationship; and swathes of Voldemort’s backstory and how it relates to the old Potions master.
If that sounds like a lot to get through, well, it certainly doesn’t feel like it in practice. This in itself isn’t a bad thing – Yates, at his best, is wonderfully expressive, especially the moment when Harry casts a dangerous curse on Malfoy and Snape heals him, allowing it pass by in a dreamlike haze, as though the camera itself can scarcely believe how grave things are becoming.
No, the problem here is that with so many small things going on, Yates doesn’t know where to focus, and thus doesn’t focus anywhere. Furthermore, the emotions that come to the fore here have been largely absent from the other films in a way that, I assume, they weren’t in the books, meaning that Ron and Harry suddenly being love-crazed and Malfoy suddenly becoming far more evil feels jarring. This is the pitfall of such serialization: in adapting such large text to the screen, anything that isn’t of utmost importance gets cut. That is, until it becomes important, when it’s sudden presence is unexplained.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
More than any other instalment of the series, I wish Deathly Hallows Part 1 had been one standalone film. If it had been it’s own single entity, free from the rest of the series and especially its second half, it could have been a truly exceptional blockbuster, unlike anything we’ve seen come from big money for a long time.
As with Half-Blood Prince, very little happens here and all of the moments are small and delicate. However, unlike the previous film, rather than juggling a host of little subplots, Deathly Hallows Part 1 has a razor-sharp focus on Harry and his friends, abandoning all other familiar characters and locations (we don’t even see Hogwarts for the whole film) whilst they go into hiding to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Yates really seems to relish being cut loose from the constraints of the series here, giving the locations a vast, panoramic quality that is in direct contrast to the winding corridors and cramped chambers of Hogwarts that we’re so used to and really emphasises our protagonists’ loneliness. The whole film takes on a quiet, melancholy mood that doesn’t strive to take us anywhere, instead content to just hover at the edge of an apocalypse. There’s even a bit where Harry and Hermione dance to Nick Cave. Nick Cave!
He seems to have solved his problem with filming emotional moments too. The film isb bookended by two very moving scenes: Hermione’s erasing of her parents’ memories of her, and Dobby’s sacrificing of himself to save his friends. Once again, the latter would have been far more potent if we’d seen Dobby since the second film, but it was nonetheless profoundly moving.
Easily the best film since Cuaron’s, The Deathly Hallows Part 1 indicates to us that megaseries like this can only excel when directors can deviate from the set template and explore their own auteurial voices. This film seems like a director who, being faced with splitting his grand finale in half, has decided to make the first half entirely for himself, before giving the crowds what they want in the end. And in doing that, he’s created the only film in the franchise where I can’t imagine it working better as a book.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
There is no moment in the entirety of the Harry Potter series that is more exhilarating than when, after Harry angrily confronts Snape over Dumbledore’s death, Professor McGonagall casts him out of Hogwarts with a flourish. It’s what this kind of film is all about – a soaring, sweeping statement of good refusing to back down to evil and triumphing. Harry Potter‘s epic climax is full of moments like this, but none reach the same heights.
Deathly Hallows Part 2 is basically the exact opposite of its predecessor. It’s big and bombastic where Part 1 was small and quiet, and it’s full of plot where Part 1 had very little. It suffers in comparison, but only because Part 1 was such a bold departure for the series. Part 2, in turn, does everything you’d expect from a grand finale. It does them very well, I think, but the conventionality of the film means that it’s never truly interesting.
It is entertaining, though. Yates is often criticised for what people perceive to be a “workmanlike” attitude to directing the franchise, but here his ability to hit all the epic beats of his narrative serves him well. It’s a shame that it’s easily his ugliest film in the series – shooting in 3D means many scenes look awful in 2D, and many sequences early on, especially the mine-cart ride through Gringott’s, made me cringe. He also seems to abandon many of the interesting flourishes that he employed at other times, keeping everything visually safer than it’s ever been under his care. Hogwarts has never been as fascinating visually as it was when Cuaron was behind the camera, but here, when it should shine, it looks more faded than ever.
Mostly, though, Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a lot of fun, and as epic and climactic as it should be. It was very hard to finish a film franchise that’s been going for ten years, and it’s understandable that he’d want to keep this instalment safe, and safe though it may be, it’s still one of the more effective and exciting summer blockbusters to come around for a long while.
The problem with Harry Potter as a film franchise is that all of the directors failed to treat their subject matter as actual films, liberated from their source material. That’s often due to how large the books are, but it’s also because they all knew that they were preaching to a built-in choir. Why bother exploring the books in detail when you don’t need to? Particularly in the later films, a peculiar shorthand emerges between the director and their audiences, where they assume that they can leave out of reduce to montage whole passages of Rowling’s original text and just skip to the next really important part. The result is a collection of films that will never really be films in their own right – only companions to a series of very successful children’s books. It’s a shame, really, as for every by-the-numbers moment, there’s something really interesting to counter it. If the directors had been given more artistic freedom, perhaps they’d have been able to make proper, standalone films, even if it meant that they deviated from Rowling’s now-sacred texts. For now, though, they’re still more than worth checking out, even if you can’t be bothered to wade through the 3407 pages of the novels. They are all just children’s books, after all.