Thursday, July 16, 2009

Harry Potter and the Continually Uneven Narrative

by James Hansen

An imminent part of the cultural landscape, therefore worthy of criticism despite the fact that it would make a gagillion dollars with or without good reviews, the Harry Potter saga continues in film form this week with the highly anticipated Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Unquestionably one of the best books in the series, HBP deepens the Potter mythology with a narrative that is overwhelming yet surprisingly scant. Closely following the details, if not the breadth, of the book, major events surrounding HBP happen more offscreen than on, which makes the big onscreen events all the more major. This led to major problems for director David Yates, who also sits in the reins for HBP and the upcoming finale(s) Deathly Hallows, in Order of the Phoenix where a large narrative full of small details became a messy episodic narrative which was slapdash and equally clunky.

Many of the same issues bely HBP in direction and execution where Yates and Co. appear unwilling to settle on a story, tone, or visual style for more than five minutes at a time – a move that magnifies silly missteps into larger, self-defeating issues. Though Yates tries to keep the comedy fervent, it undercuts the effect of the dramatic scenes with the majority of the biggest moments falling flat. Without the artistic ability to meld the worlds of expanding love and impending doom together, or at least making the sections seem like they belong to the same movie, HBP ends up being similarly uneven to Order and equally frustrating in that the good parts are so good but are totally overwhelmed by the weaknesses of clarity in the direction.

The screenplay by Steven Kloves does little to give any impetus to much of anything involving the rise of the Death Eaters. Although they are apparently running all around town, a couple random reminders are all that are given as the driving force of rising evil in the movie. Nothing much rises though, its just sort of there, even as Draco Malfoy awkwardly lurks around the castle waiting for his shining moment. In one of the more insanely ridiculous moments of the series since the entirety of Chamber of Secrets, a sweeping shot out of the castle windows shows Harry comforting Hermione, slides across to find Ron snogging Lavender, and then, at the very top of the tallest castle, Draco Malfoy, perched like a Gargoyle awaiting his chance to slide some roofies to his totally Goth girlfriend before sexually asphyxiating himself to sleep. This is a prime example of inserting parts of the narrative where they do not belong and the effective mishandling of both sides that are instrumental to HBP.

The oddest thing is that, random as they are, many of the funny love scenes work – Jessie Cave plays the aloofly head-over-heels in love Lavender Brown to near perfection – and many of the dramatic sequences are solid, but their artistic craftsmanship is so disparate, as seen in the hysterically forced moment mentioned above, that they fail to ever come together with smooth transitions to make HBP feel like one narrative. Instead, HBP often feels confused with which way it wants to head. There is so much time spend on goofing around with the love stories and playing Quidditch – a sport that has suddenly become a enormously literal dick swinging contest – HBP’s major moments feel light, undermotivated, and insignificant. By the time the ball gets rolling, two hours into the running time, there has been so much nothing for so long that the entire crux of the plot feels tacked on.

Yet, despite the faults, there is a saving grace. Amid the plethora of big name British actors and actresses who have starred in the series, HBP is the first film in the series to be written in a way that allows for a couple star turns for Michael Gambon and Jim Broadbent. With such a large cast, characters often get lost in the mix and become more slight – Alan Rickman as Snape has yet to be in any single movie enough – but HBP gives enough time for Dumbledore and Slughorn to have some real shining moments that keep Yates’s shoddy filmmaking out of mind. Although the awkward transitions in and out of the pensieve hurt their overall effect, Dumbledore and Harry’s trip to the cave to find Voldemort’s horcrux, an aspect that is brought up way too late in the movie for its own good, is one of the best scenes in the series. Sharply edited and legitimately terrifying, Gambon has never been better (and if anyone was still doubting his ability to really be Dumbledore post- Richard Harris, those questions have clearly been answered, even if the scene fails to display the gravitas it should feature.) Slughorn, on the other hand, is a bit of a one note character, but Broadbent brings some real charm to the role – almost enough to sell Hagrid’s overlong perfunctory appearance, but not quite.

Unfortunately, HBP’s main set piece – the arrival of the Death Eaters to Hogwarts and Dumbledore’s murder at the hands of Snape – brings the film back down by making one of the major scenes of the series, if not insignificant, totally banal. The entire scene, as well as that profound individual moment, is so small and shot so distantly that when a sudden close up of Dumbledore falling from the castle (oddly similar to Rickman’s fate in Die Hard) is less sad and shocking than out of place and silly.

Immensely frustrating, HBP has so much in its that is so good and an equal amount that is just bad. Yates and Kloves again have a major problem in the execution of narrative balance and even more annoying problems with simple fixes. (Like, for instance, not using the exact same shot of Malfoy pulling the curtain off the Vanishing Cabinet every time he does it. Nitpicky as hell, sure. But, I mean, seriously?) Perhaps this is some sort of progress. Despite this largely negative review, HBP does a lot of things right and is largely enjoyable even when its doing them wrong. Its just that for a story that was practically begging to be adapted to the screen – the books became more and more cinematic with each passing novel – HBP could have, and should have, been so much more.


Kate and Jacob said...

Yes yes yes! I am such a HP fan and while the movie was funny, there was no ominous tone, no sense of rising darkness or tension and just an overwhelming sense of silliness. It felt like everyone on the film just said, oh those Harry Potter fans are so silly, let's just hurry up and end this while mocking the people who take this so seriously. The last scene was uplifting instead of a reflection on all the *hopefully* darkness and loss to come.
It was good for a few laughs at least.

Mike F said...

Yeah, I love the books and while this was my second favorite of the movies (after "Azkaban") that doesn't say much. The adaptations have been underwhelming at best, and absurd at worst. With HBP, I feel like there is an attempt to juxtapose not just love, but sex and humor, with death and destruction and despair. You can gain something from setting these forces off against each other as the polarities of each side, as it can give the story more to lean on than just "the badguy is evil because he is Snidely Whiplash with a wand." I often feel the books do this well, helped along by some of Rowling's narrative winks and nudges about the off camera activities of her characters. For a reason I can't put my finger on (and perhaps it really is nothing more than ham-handedness of the direction) the movie's attempts to gain emotional resonance out of this juxtaposition often fall flat, where the book's often succeed.

My only point of disagreement is on Gambon. While Rickman and Broadbent are both joys to watch, and Maggie Smith wears her character like a comfortable pair of old socks, I feel like Gambon phones it in sometimes, and its most obvious when you have someone like Rickman on screen to compare him to. Every twitch of the corner of Rickman's eyes let's me know he's researched his character, know's full well what the man is about, and as a result puts on screen a character of tremendous compexity and depth. While Gambon does have some great chemistry with Radcliffe, I don't feel as though he knows his character well. He seems to have settled on "wise old hippie", and left it at that. But perhaps I am being nitpicky. He's not awful to watch, but I sometimes feel like he has no view of the scope or depth of the character he is playing. Perhaps he would know if he had actually read the seventh book.

Chuck W said...


I just watched this recently, and while I disagree with you somewhat about the scoring (I'd go for B-), I definitely concur with you about the film's myriad failings. I don't think David Yates is all that skilled at keeping a consistent tone, nor is all that good at pace and structure. I love the visual design of his Potter films -- but both this film and the last film suffered from the same set of problems, which are discussed quite well in your review. I especially felt the big, climactic deaths in both films felt surprisingly rushed and a little hollow, all sound and fury but surprisingly without any sort of resonance.

And for the record, my favorite Potter movies are still the third and fourth films, in that order. I still wish good old Alfonso could have come back for the conclusion (I'd love to see how he'd recreate some of those menacing forest sequences).

And has anyone read Ebert's latest writings on the Potter franchise? I'm a little worried about old Rog; anyone nostalgic for the directorial approach of Chris Columbus needs to reevaluate some things, in my opinion.