Monday, July 20, 2009

 


In 2001, the stars of Harry Potter were 12, 13 & 11

Harry is back, and, though he’s changed somewhat over the years, one settles back into a Harry Potter movie rather the way one greets a dear friend after a long separation. This says a great deal about the series, which is well on its way to establishing itself as one of the most successful long-running film franchises of all time, equaled perhaps only by James Bond, an owl of a very different feather.

And yet not. Just as each Bond film features a characteristic “Bond girl,” a role that defines not only the individual movie, but has made more than one or two careers, the Potter films each foreground a single secondary character, typically a visiting Hogwarts professor, in this instance Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, professor of potions & a man with a secret. Unlike the Bond girl slots, which have gone to actresses both great & terrible, the Potter films have featured some of the finest British actors alive, and Broadbent is among the best. If you never saw Broadbent as W.S. Gilbert in Mike Leigh’s 1999 Topsy-Turvy, you have one of life’s more delicious minor pleasures yet in store. Broadbent won an Oscar for Iris, is a five-time BAFTA winner (for those two films, Moulin Rouge plus two television roles) & is a textbook example of the great character actor who is largely underappreciated by the general public. In a series that has featured Kenneth Branagh, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson & John Cleese, not to mention the late Richard Harris, Maggie Smith & Michael Gambon – and in an episode that has Helena Bonham Carter chewing on every curtain she can find (including, figuratively at least, Tom Felton’s ear) – Broadbent’s Slughorn is one of the gems of the Potter films.¹

One of the reasons for including such breath-taking talent in what are essentially secondary roles is not just because one can – the British approach to acting careers is infintely more sensible than the American star system – but because such stalwarts could bolster some very expensive films that otherwise relied on children for key roles. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson & Rupert Grint were, after all, just 12, 11 & 13 respectively when the first Potter film was released in 2001, even younger when it was filmed. For the trio of stars – and those like them who have appeared in all six films to date, including Felton & Bonnie Wright – one benefit has been that they’ve had the opportunity to learn their craft in the presence of some of the best actors alive. And by now it’s paid off – all three of the primary figures have become credible thespians and Radcliffe is, for the first time really, quite good in The Half-Blood Prince.

Still, a franchise is a franchise – there are expectations, and the individual film is less important than the brand overall. In this sense, it may have been a cagey move to turn the final four films in this series over to veteran tv director David Yates. He wastes almost no time at all setting up background & characters – it’s understood that, by now, you know who they are.² The Dursleys, heretofore the principle representatives of the Muggle world, are nowhere to be seen. One brief scene in which Harry flirts with the waitress of a train station café & we’re back in the thick of things, a ransacked suburban home where Slughorn is hiding out in the guise of an overstuffed chair.

By the time the eighth film is released in the spring of 2011, the only elements that the series will have held onto for its entire run are a handful of the actors & J.K. Rowling herself. The series will have had four directors, an even larger number of producers & even screenwriter Steve Kloves, who penned seven of the scripts, managed to go absent for The Order of the Phoenix (which in turn was written by Michael Goldenberg, screenwriter for the most recent Peter Pan and the sci-fi film Contact). Having Yates direct the final four films may heighten the consistency between them, though he is by no means a perfect director, even for this property. He doesn’t quite know what to do with Emma Watson, the best actor among his three leads.³ And a comic interlude in which Ron is put under the spell of a love potion is woefully overdone. Still, Yates does seem to get the dynamics of a series – where most episodes must begin & end in the middle – and it’s worth noting that this is almost certainly the best of the six films to date.

But what the film series will be remembered for is, I think, something very different altogether, something quite apart from the chronicles of Hogwarts, tho not out of line really with Rowling’s ultimate vision. Very much like Michael Apted’s documentary series x-Up, which returns every seven years to chronicle the lives of a handful of British youngsters of different social, regional & racial backgrounds (the next installment, 56 Up, is tentatively due in 2012), by now quite middle-aged and scattered about the English-speaking world, Harry Potter’s greatest gift as a film series is its embodiment of time. Roger Ebert makes a decent case for the Up series as one of the ten greatest film accomplishments ever. I don’t think that anyone (other than a hopeless Hogwarts fanboy) would make the same argument for this series. But it is remarkable – utterly – to be allowed to watch this very talented group of youngsters grow up together. That the individuals are not their characters hardly matters – they inhabit them, even Evanna Lynch’s inspired portrayal of eccentric Luna Lovegood. They are emerging as men & women right in front of our eyes. I can’t think of an equivalent in the history of film, and the closest approximation in television – David and especially Ricky Nelson’s roles on Ozzie and Harriet nearly a half century ago – demonstrates the superiority of film in that the gap between one episode & the next (seven years in the Up series, an average of 18 months in Harry Potter) is sufficient to make the transformations palpable. Just seeing Rupert Grint a few inches taller than Daniel Radcliffe is a shock precisely because it’s not an effect. That’s what happens – the real world, visible even in Hogwarts.

 

¹ A fun game would be to identify all of the major age-appropriate British actors who have not appeared in a Harry Potter film, such as Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Pete Postlethwaite, Ben Kingsley or Ian McKellen. Dench of course has the Bond franchise & McKellen’s Gandalf may yet be reprised in the forthcoming The Hobbit. Mirren & Stewart have had their franchises in television. Kingsley & Postlethwaite must be slackers.

² Just how pervasive have these characters become in our culture? A friend of one of my sons who had not seen the last two installments found Half-Blood Prince to be superb. He had no difficulty sorting out the characters & action, in spite of the absence of set-up.

³ It isn’t Hermione’s story, finally, which may be the great tragedy of Rowling’s books. But if the brainiac girl neither gets to be the ultimate hero, nor gets the romantic lead, Rowling’s point seems to be that it’s just as important for the hero and the girl to be friends.

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