This summer has been a bad one for movies. That is true most summers, but in this long, hot one, movies seem worse, dominated by super-hero, 3-D blockbuster sequels (or prequels) for children.
Those blockbusters seem too big, too noisy, and too in love with special effects to be interesting. I’ve avoided them, but I finally did go to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
I knew that the fuss came mainly from the adolescents who had grown up with Harry. I saw my first, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, back in the summer of 2007 on vacation at Rehoboth with my two oldest grandchildren â€” now in college.
The grandchildren understood the film better than I did. I knew that there was warfare among the students at Hogwarts â€” that kid with the smirky smile and the white hair had to be bad news for Harry and friends.
There was an ominous new teacher, played with a vengeance by Imelda Staunton, who exacted painful retribution on students who didn’t toe her mark. And Lord Voldemort had a wand duel with Dumbledore, giving Ralph Fiennes license to grimace freely as he shot lightning balls at the noble headmaster. The grandchildren came out of the theater sounding like graduate students in English: “Dark,” they said, “Very dark.”
I would call the three Harry Potter films I’ve seen “dark.” The sun never really shines at Hogwarts School, though the most interesting thing about the Potter series may be that school itself. The endless corridors and ornately shaded rooms of Hogwarts are fascinating. They contain intriguing features like the headmaster’s podium that features a carved owl that comes alive when Dumbledore speaks.
Moreover, the paintings on the stairway are animated, so that the figures depicted in them actually move. There is wonderful lighting at Hogwarts â€” rows upon rows of candles suspended in the air above the tables in the dining hall, for example. But they only flicker, and the rest of the place is full of shadows and dark corners. And outside, especially in Deathly Hallows, are dark woods and threatening skies.
The characters are also wonderful â€” played by famous British actors like Staunton or Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Michael Gabon, Helena Bonham Carter, and, of course Ralph Fiennes. You have to watch carefully or the minor ones will flit by without your noticing. Plus, the main actors can be hidden by costumes that compete with the settings as to complexity and ingenuity: their inner lives are conveyed more by gesture and pose than by subtle facial expressions or vocal intonations.
The three children, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), are less encumbered, and they mature believably over time. But no one should expect subtlety from the acting in these films.
Like many who have not followed the books or the film series closely, I was lost during Deathly Hallows, Part 2. I could tell that that the cold-blooded Lord Voldemort was the presiding villain not only because he kept swooping in and out, but because he had no nose. I think he had a nose in the first film; it gets lost as the series progresses.
That disappearance must be caused by the progression of evil in him â€” or the refinements in computer-generated imagery over the years. Whatever. The point is that a Big Battle between good and evil is coming to an end here. Hogwarts is left in ruins, though many of the good wizards from the earlier films are called in to help clean up and rebuild.
As a former English teacher I shouldn’t be so satirical about a series that has drawn so many kids to reading and arguing about interpretation. There were clusters of adolescents convening in the lobby after the Deathly Hallows showing I attended. They were ardently comparing notes about the meaning of Voldemort’s defeat, the firework effects in his duel with Potter, and whether or not Granger and Weasley were a believable match in the finale.
I would have surrendered my Muggle wand to get that kind of intellectual energy going in my classes when I was teaching.