Top Ten of 2011, #10: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, David Yates

The entire Harry Potter phenomenon is something that has truly deserved all of its successes.  The existence of the books are nothing short of a miracle, considering how J.K. Rowling wrote the first one while on social security and unemployed, a single mother in the throes of clinical depression contemplating suicide.  Unlike most young adult fiction, the Harry Potter books are extremely well-written and intelligent.  They don’t speak down to their readership, but rather invite it to rise and grow with the series.  They portray an enticing, magical world where every child has a place and an extended family at Hogwarts, where children are respected and valued and encouraged to embrace their destiny.  It’s no surprise than an entire generation of children has been given hope by the series, and learned to appreciate the joys of reading.

The films began with director Christopher Columbus, who did an adequate job on the first two creating a sense of magic and the wonders of discovery.  But the director of fare like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire has never been much for subtlety, and one of the signatures of his films appears to be the trite, phony, narcissistic grins of overly-precious Hollywood child stars.  Luckily for the series the three leads were cast so well, and all of them grew with the films into talented young actors.  Things really experienced a shift when Alfonso Cuaron took over for Prisoner of Azkaban and began treating it like something more than a shiny, happy child’s confection.  Then David Yates came on board with the fifth film and stuck through to the end becoming a central, governing voice along with screenwriter Steve Kloves.  Not only did Yates provide a great consistency during the run of the final half of the series, but he began with the adaptation that is easily the worst book in the series, the Order of the Phoenix.  The fifth novel is almost unreadable as Rowling seems to have lost the through-line with this installment, and most of the book is spent scrabbling around trying to find its voice, its purpose, and the ending for the series.  My personal theory is that the success of the film series really hit Rowling while she was working on it, and suddenly she was no longer writing only for herself or even for her enormous and still-growing readership, but for the Hollywood machine, and the pressures of not upsetting it created a lot of anxiety and self-questioning.  Luckily for her, she was back on track with the publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but Phoenix is filled with a lot of meandering and stumbling, and reads like a collection of filler material by a writer trying to find her way through a first draft to the end.  Nevertheless, Yates took the material and did something rare– made an adaptation stronger than the source material.

So the weight on Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is enormous.  Not only does it finish up an unprecedented film series, one shot with the same young actors over the course of a decade as they matured, never replacing any of them, and one with a cinematic vision that became more honed and refined as the series continued, but it does justice to a literary phenomenon, and the end of the film series signals the close to a multi-media legacy featuring a who’s who of the British acting community.  The special effects, set design, make-up, and art direction continued to evolve and grow over the course of the series, always representing the best of its time, and by this last film has evolved into something truly special.  And in addition to all of the talent in front of and behind the camera, Deathly Hallows has the unenviable task of wrapping up plot detail after plot detail, of portraying moment after sacred moment in the endgame of a beloved literary benchmark.  Every moment of the film is an opportunity to stumble, but the film never does.  Under Yates’ confident leadership, Deathly Hallows hits every small bit out of the park and brings a satisfying close to an unwieldy eight-film adaptation.

Now, it’s likely that Deathly Hallows can’t really stand on it’s own.  I can’t imagine anyone who’s never read the Harry Potter books or seen the other films sitting in front of this one and having any idea of what’s going on or caring about the characters.  To that point, Deathly Hallows, Part 2 really can’t be appreciated as a stand-alone film.  But the manner it which it closes such a long and successful series is the kind of razor’s edge, miraculous balancing act that deserves acknowledgement and deep respect.  Forget the new “trilogy,” the Harry Potter film series is really the Star Wars of this generation, so powerful that its success has redefined the Hollywood blockbuster franchise, inflicting the irredeemable Twilight films on us with their mimicking marketing strategy right down to splitting the final book into two films, a move that was required to capture the full density of the final Potter book, but one that is nothing more than imitation and a blind money grab on the part of that other franchise’s vapid excrescence.

9/10

The Woman in Black, James Watkins (2012)

Hammer Films was such a name player in horror back in the 50’s and 60’s that their recent return is both a talking point and a welcome development in the current genre landscape.  And The Woman in Black is a great feature for them to re-launch their name, much better than the idiosyncratic remake Let Me In which seems to stand better on its own, or the Hillary Swank disaster The Resident that all but avoided theatrical release.

The Woman in Black is pure, old-school ghost story through and through.  It’s a period piece, and it walks a perfect balance between the slower, tension-building pace of old and more contemporary editing and cinematography.  In fact, the cinematography here is a marvel.  There are some amazing shots of the island estate where Arthur Kipps must review the will and financial documents, and the interior shots feature the richest, lushest shades of bleak grey I’ve probably ever seen on film.  In fact, there’s a lived-in realism and authenticity to the house responsible for much of the mood and tension; I won’t go so far as to call it naturalism, but it definitely stands apart from most horror films’ obvious movie sets.  And it’s really important that these kinds of details are so meticulously crafted, because this is the sort of film that depends on them.

The story is such a familiar one that it’s long become a genre cliche– a young lawyer heads off to a remote village to collect and review all of the legal documents at an empty estate, and finds the villagers are terrified of the house and want nothing to do with him.  They try to chase him away, and the one man who befriends him, played here by Ciaran Hinds, is a skeptic of the supernatural and somewhat at odds with the prevailing mentality of the surrounding country folk.  Hinds is really fantastic here; he’s one of the best character actors working today, and in the last year or two it seems he’s hit a whole new level of exposure.  And he has a face made for this kind of role.  There’s an easygoing trustworthiness and sincerity to him, but his face also transparently reveals disease, anxiety, and emotional pain.  And Daniel Radcliffe effortlessly fills the shoes of lead protagonist Arthur Kipps.  It’s an interesting role for Radcliffe to take post-Potter, because on paper it’s a related genre and it’s a role that largely asks him to perform simple actions and to spend most of his screen time reacting to things around him.  And you can’t have more of a master class in that than shooting seven Harry Potter films.  But Kipps is also an older character with a young son, haunted by the death of his wife, and struggling with grief and defeat; he’s certainly not on a stereotypical hero’s journey of the Joseph Campbell variety.  Radcliffe acquits himself quite well and shows how he’s maturing; there’s a welcome gravity to his work, and an honest weight to his character’s emotional duress.  Radcliffe never pushes and never tries to make more out of simple moments, while also demonstrating a growing emotional facility and natural vulnerability.  The Woman in Black proves that he has a potential career ahead of him far richer than anything we’ve seen to date.

Once Kipps gets to the house, of course he begins to hear and see things, as well as find evidence of past tragedies involving the deceased widow’s dead son and the growing number the villagers have had with their own children.  It certainly doesn’t help that Kipps begins his journey in a very raw emotional state, and he feels connected to the plights of everyone around him because of the parallels with his own young son.  It isn’t long before Kipps is spending his time at the estate reading old birthday cards instead of legal documents, and running around the place chasing noises and shadows.  And if one thing is abundantly obvious, this house is simply a place. you. do. not. want. to. be.  But Kipps is already on his last warning with his employer as a result of his own personal tragedy and how it’s affected him, so for the good of his son and his ability to take care of his family, he really has no choice but to see the job through.

In addition to the finely tuned performances of all-involved, much credit is due to screenwriter Jane Goldman and director James Watkins.  Goldman co-wrote Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and the non-Vaughn directed The Debt with writing partner and director Matthew Vaughn, and she’s always had a good ear for dialogue and a great sense of how to balance style and tone from project to project.  For director Watkins, this seems to be a pretty big step up from his previous Eden Lake.

There’s not much more I want to reveal about the plot, and it hardly matters since The Woman in Black isn’t a film with a particularly intricate plot, anyway.  And while there isn’t the kind of narrative-redefining ambitions that might be required to propel Woman to greatness, the reason it’s so successful on its own terms is how everyone involved seems well-aware of its more modest aims, and helps execute them to flawless perfection.

7.5/10

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