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.



The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd (2011)

What a tepid, boring waste of an opportunity to tell Margaret Thatcher’s story.  I think enough time has passed that we can look back at the 80’s with a certain sense of historical perspective.  And with that distance comes a renewed interest in examining the politics of the time and how they informed where we are now.  Not to mention the fact that there are plenty of opportunities to be had in detailing the life story, ambition, and struggles of the first female British Prime Minister in history.  Thatcher came up at the end of the Cold War, during a time when the world was run by old, white men– even more so than it is now.  And she demonstrated an unparalleled will, resolve, strength, and toughness that earned her the nickname of the film’s title.

So it’s extremely disappointing how The Iron Lady glosses over her rise in the most superficial of ways.  We never feel like we get to know the character beyond her archetype, and all of the attempts to dramatize her struggle to balance her political ambitions with a family life feels like a lot of aimless guesswork resulting in nothing more than broad generalities.  It doesn’t help that only about half the film is spent on her actual story.  We see her at a rally, being proposed to, and a scene or two in the House of Commons.  She decides to run from Prime Minister, and there’s a bit about how she needs to be more authoritative.  Late in the film we get a glimpse of her true power as she handles the Falklands War.  And that’s it.

For some reason, Lloyd and her screenwriter Abi Morgan choose to spend at least half of the running time of the film with an elderly Thatcher as she fights early dementia and hallucinates conversations with the ghost of her dead husband, played by Jim Broadbent.  Broadbent is a wonderful actor, but here all he’s called on to do is prance about like a jolly idiot and placate Thatcher in her search for the remote control or a momentary wistful thought about whether or not she spent enough time with their children.  Obviously, there’s an aim for something along the lines of King Lear, but that’s something that could have been achieved in a few scenes, and certainly didn’t require more than half the film.  And while the onset of dementia and the process of facing one’s own mortality certainly could make for a compelling story, why try to turn a bio-pic on Thatcher into that?

For all of the repetitive scenes with Thatcher sorting through her husband’s old clothes or eating breakfast, that’s time that could have been spent going into more detail with her as a younger woman.  Yes, there may have been a conflict there between her family life and her political career, so let’s see it.  Spend some time with the young Margaret Thatcher and her family.  Dramatize her inability to be there for her children.  Let’s get to know them as well.  Make us privy to Thatcher’s fears, doubts, struggles, or her refusal to relent to a male-dominated world.  Spend more time with Thatcher once she takes office.  Instead, we get to see her deal with the Falklands crisis, and that’s it.  You don’t come away from The Iron Lady feeling you know anything more about her political career, her rise, or her general character than you would from a few paragraphs of biography on wikipedia.  And it doesn’t seem as though Lloyd or Morgan have any opinions of their own about Thatcher, or even anything much to say at all.  To make matters even worse, there’s an over-reliance on newsreel footage that rarely adds anything, and seems a crutch to pad the running time and a device to break from the narrative every time they paint themselves into a corner, which is often.  The fact that a female screenwriter and a female director have done so little to serve the life story of such a fascinating woman is beyond disappointing and smacks of complete and total failure.

Obviously, there’s a fantastic central performance here by Meryl Streep.  And whether she’s absorbing the personality and mannerisms of Margaret Thatcher, or exploring her waning mental faculties in old age, Streep is always amazing.  She’s reason enough to see the film, but just barely.  And Harry Lloyd is sublime as a young Denis Thatcher, and unrecognizable from his work as Viserys Targaryen on HBO’s Game of Thrones.  Streep and Lloyd, like most of the game, talented cast, deserve a script that actually gives them something to play and has a rich story to tell.    I assume Margaret Thatcher deserves that as well, but The Iron Lady does very little to make that case for her.


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