As the story of Harry Potter nears its end, you’d expect the films to get better. The climax is nearing, the subject matter is darker, and so the ante is upped in terms of visuals, performance, etc. Only, the series is getting slightly worse, and the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is probably the most disappointing yet. Being half of a book it’s a veritable non-starter of a movie, complete with forced mini-resolution, and borrowing a lot from a better franchise.
In this story Harry finds himself as an outlaw on the run. The Ministry of Magic has been taken over by the evil Lord Voldemort and his cohorts who are forming a new dictatorship: one in which us regular humans will be considered lesser creatures, and crushed into submission. But Voldemort must destroy Potter first. So our hero flees with his allies, most importantly Ron and Hermione whose relationship is threatened by Harry’s bond with the spritely lass. Feeling alone, Harry must work to find one of the “Horcruxes” that make Voldemort’s soul invincible, and destroy it. But he doesn’t know how and must revisit his tragic past in order to change the future.
In a way, the latest Harry Potter film is no different from the others, but therein lies a major problem. The whole movie franchise suffers from Poor Adaptation Syndrome. Writers fail to acknowledge the vast difference between plots and characters in a novel and in a movie, and so attempt to squeeze in as many elements of a 400 page book into a 120 minute film. So what we see are characters appearing and disappearing faster than corpses dropping in a Rob Zombie flick. These characters often have one important line or piece of information, and then disappear. In this film, for example, we see Brendan Gleeson as Mad-Eye Moody and Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan’s actual son) as Bill Weasley given about 3-4 minutes of screen time and then they completely disappear, having zero narrative function. In the novels they’re afforded more time but in a film it’s so brief it’s pointless from a narrative perspective. This was the exact same problem that made The Golden Compass such a bad film of a great book, and we will never see the sequels made. This latest Potter film goes a step further and forces a sort of climax by reintroducing a character from one of the earlier Potter films and then perish as if he’s some sort of Obi Wan figure. But not only does this pale in comparison to the death of Dumbledore in the previous film, but it’s hard to care about a character that appeared several years ago and doesn’t do much here. It’s like making a 2-hour movie and trying to make us feel for someone who has 2 minutes presence in the entire film. A more ambitious writing team would tear apart the books and restructure it drastically to work as a film. Indeed, the series has had so much padding and so many diversions that it would probably work better as a trilogy.
The writing and direction also fail to make the most of the subtext of Voldemort’s growing empire. Through the design of the Ministry and its anti-human propaganda, the iconography obviously references the Nazi Party, and perhaps even Stalin’s reign. JK Rowling is obviously following in the footsteps of Tolkien by referring to the atrocities of dictatorship. Only Tolkien was dealing with impending threat, and the WW2 allusions have grown predictable in modern fantasy. A cleverer writing team would have taken a step further and made more relevant allusions, such as to the baffling rise of far-right political parties in Europe and the US due to the effects of the recession, all the while disguising it in an adventurous fantasy story.
But what makes the last few Potter films so inferior is the direction of David Yates. Known as a TV director, it came as a surprise to see him take on such a huge franchise. But it was also the wrong choice. Yates has no sense of scale as a visual film-maker. Nor any imagination. There are far too many visual references to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in this film, and they lessen any originality the Potter series has. Yates thinks that a bleak colour palette is enough to indicate desolation, but fails to get into the characters’ heads (a dance scene to a Nick Cave song is probably the best moment). The action isn’t particularly thrilling, and there’s a few distracting scenes that were blatantly designed for a 3D makeover that never happened (e.g. a snake snaps at the camera on three separate occasions). The only truly impressive visual moment is the animated telling of the origins of the “deathly hallows”.
Of course, it’s not entirely Yates’s fault. As the tone of the Potter film grow darker, the performances must take on a new gravitas. And sadly, Radcliffe especially isn’t up for the challenge. We see moments of the bouncy child of early films, but the weight of expectation just isn’t apparent besides the make-up artists’ generous use of dark rings under Harry’s eyes. Emma Watson’s foot-stomping childishness also is too evident, leaving only Rupert Grint to prove that he will most certainly have a career outside of the Potter flicks. Proof of the lacklustre performances are present when the trio infiltrate the Ministry of Magic by disguising themselves as existing members. Those three adult actors (Sophie Thompson, David O’Hara, and Steffan Rhodri) play Hermione, Harry, and Ron, better than Watson, Radcliffe, and (well not quite) Grint themselves.
And, of course, the film suffers from the usual plot holes bandaged over with deus ex machinas masked as magic (an imprisoned group are rescued by an elf who can conveniently appear and disappear at will- surely the captors would have planned for this?). And while the early films had a sense of wonder in magic that balanced out these issues, the later films labour the portent in such shallow manners that we’re left with what feels like a dragged-out and frustrating franchise.