Saturday, August 1, 2009

"Harry Potter" and the Infinite Audacity of Its Filmmakers

To put it bluntly, this movie should not be this good. Paramount, with its summer cash cows, has proven that you do not need to make a great movie to keep the fans of a franchise happy. Yet, Warner Brothers insists on churning out summer spectacles that are strikingly innovative and complex. One could even argue that "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," an absolutely impeccable production, exposes how the Potter films' producers have infused the franchise with more genuine emotion and atmosphere than it really demands.

The Harry Potter films have always suffered from a bit of the old movie-adaptation-of-a-book syndrome. Easily the worst offender, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" had a woefully malformed script, courtesy of Steve Kloves. The movie sought to ride on the whimsy of its premise for an entire two and a half hours, as it meandered from episode to episode, ultimately arriving at a lame final act. Director, Chris Columbus was also to blame. He, in recent years, seems to be specializing in bland, tedious film adaptations of beloved franchises. ("Rent," anyone?) Harry Potter got a bit better when the vastly superior Alfonso Cuarón took over the chair with the third installment. Yet, the story still felt limp and Cuarón's work offered only the faintest echoes of his true talent.

Not until the fourth film, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," did this franchise become something worth taking seriously. With this film, writer Kloves finally found some semblance of dramatic structure within his source material. The result, despite some shaky performances, is one of the best Harry Potter films to date. The film benefitted significantly from the inherent structure that the Tri-Wizard Tournament provided, as well as the quickly rising stakes of the series' plot. The following installment continued on these strengths, despite marking Kloves' only absence from the series and the introduction of a fourth director, David Yates.

Now, with the latest film, Yates has solidified his role as the Harry Potter director. His work on the "The Half-Blood Prince" displays a versatility that allows him to develop J. K. Rowling's universe in all of its facets. He, for example, is the only director in the series who understands how to make wizard fight scenes worthwhile. His face-off between Harry and Malfoy is gritty and violent. He lingers on the ugly result, allowing its full impact on Harry to resonate. When there is an attack on the Weasley house, he uses the silence of the open fields surrounding it to its maximum dramatic effect.

Yet, action sequences are not this film's greatest strength. After the film's somber, emotional climax, Yates chooses to insert a silent shot of the empty Great Hall. It is a simple, but powerful summation of the profound damage that has been done.

This director has made an all-important realization: six films in, magic is no longer very magical. For Harry, every other wizard and even the moviegoer, most forms of magic have become commonplace. Yates is smart enough to treat them as such. Moments of whimsy are almost entirely absent from this film. The magic that is shown is violent, dark and disturbing – elements that are only revealing themselves to most of the characters now that Voldemort has returned. The magic is also, vitally, less abstract. Beams of light and puffs of smoke have been replaced with more tangible results like shattering glass and raging fire. The dangers of dark magic are becoming, in a word, real.

Professor Slughorn states, at one point, that "there can be no light without the dark." Yates fully grasps this, the film's prevailing theme. (The fact that there is a prevailing theme in this film shows how far Kloves' scripts have come.) More importantly, however, Yates understands the inverse of this maxim; "The Half-Blood Prince" never veers into the portentous, as it is often quite funny. Harry's misplaced sense of chivalry, as it appears when his crush approaches a dinner table, is presented with amusing, understated discomfort. Similarly, Ron's admirer digs her spoon into a table with hilariously rapt infatuation.

The fact that the cast never misses a beat certainly helps establish this dichotomy. Pointing out just how incredible Harry Potter's cast is has become cliched, but it bears repeating. Whoever is responsible for assembling it is responsible for an amazing feat of casting. To think that so many actors can do so well, so consistently over almost a decade, while half of them are going through puberty is downright mind boggling. Daniel Radcliffe has grown into quite the actor, as Harry continues to shed his meekness. Emma Watson has coiled Hermione into quite the little ball of tension. Alan Rickman remains undeniably brilliant, filling Professor Snape with as much droll hatred as ever. Even Tom Felton has come into his own, creating a deeply troubled Malfoy who displays all the self-imposed alienation of a school shooter.

The film's tone, however, is largely defined by the excellent cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel. From the bleak, high-contrast look of the subway station early in the film to the moonlit chiaroscuro of the climax, this film is rife with potent visuals that elevate it far beyond anything the series has seen thus far. Delbonnel's work stays true to what came before it, but lends newfound volume to these familiar settings. Dumbledore's study is still awash in warm candlelight early in the film but, at the end, it is lit only by pale, grey sunlight. Even the hallways of Hogwarts display astonishing visual range, intimately lit by red lanterns for a party midway through the film, but later, so cold and dark that students seem to be disappearing into the stone walls.

The beauty of the film's climax can hardly be overstated. Without Delbonnel's eye, the painful loss that these final moments portray would not have been nearly as powerful. The film's themes are imbued with such a profound level of sophistication through his photography that it transcends every other aspect of the film.

In fact, dare I say that it is too good? As I have already mentioned, these films are often burdened by their insistence on remaining extremely faithful to J. K. Rowling's novels. On one hand, this has blessed the films with an uncommonly detailed fantasy world. On the other, it seems to have forced a fundamental simplicity onto them.

As I admire the significant quality of this film's production, I cannot help but wonder what it all means. Harry Potter, as it happens, can always be boiled down to a simple, good versus evil story; what constitutes good magic and bad magic is never really challenged or complicated. Potentially fascinating areas are largely ignored, such as the wizards' relationship with the muggle world. Social relevance, symbolism and truly complex themes seem to be non-existent. It all lacks genuine meaning.

To be fair, I have not read any of the books recently. These deficiencies, however, seem so fundamental to the Harry Potter world that I cannot believe that they only came about in translation. This may seem like a serious criticism for a film I have praised so highly, but it is the film's very quality that exposes these flaws. This story is executed with such profound talent and devotion that it compels one to think deeply about it all. Sadly, Harry Potter does not seem to hold up to penetrating thought. It is, in all its complexity, still a mere kids' story.

The fact that I needed to realize such a thing after watching "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is, ultimately, a testament to how great of a film it is. It takes a story that does not require sophistication and craft, and gives it just that. I sincerely hope that, in its final chapters, the quality of the film saga's ideas can measure up to the quality of its execution. Yet, if it fails to do so, I will not be terribly disappointed. The later Harry Potter films have truly been something to behold, with a vibrant world and wonderfully drawn characters; these films are already far better than one could have expected.

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