Take Two: HP 7.2, by Tyler Smith
Several years ago, I made a decision. I decided that I would not read any of the Harry Potter books until all the films had been released. My reason for this was that I wanted to see whether or not the movies could stand on their own, without a viewer’s previous knowledge of the books to prop them up. Now that the film series has finally come to an end, I think I can say that, by and large, the stories and characters hold up pretty well. Not perfectly, though, and therein lay my frustration.
There have been several times throughout the series in which I found myself thinking, “I guess I’ll just have to read the book to make sense of this.” Whether it be rushed plot exposition or the under utilizing of a major actor in what appears to be a minor role, every film contained at least one moment in which I felt like I was at a fun party at which I wasn’t totally welcome. Though I’ve enjoyed the films immensely over the years, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion- which has been, I think, confirmed with the recent film- that the latter half of this series was more for the fans of J.K. Rowling’s books than for the average moviegoer.
In the midnight screening I attended, I found that there would be a palpable audience reaction to things that hadn’t happened yet. There would be a knowing laugh before something comical occurred. A triumphant entrance would be preceded by applause and cheers. Clearly, I was in the minority in this theater. I actually didn’t always know what was going to happen, while many in the audience obviously did. This wouldn’t bother me, except that, with the occasional knowing wink (a line here, a look there), the film seemed to communicate that I, as somebody that was seeing all this stuff for the first time, was not a true fan.
This, of course, bothered me a little. It made this film a bit frustrating. As we meet Aberforth Dumbledore, estranged brother of the beloved Hogwarts headmaster, we are given hints that perhaps Albus Dumbledore’s past isn’t exactly squeaky clean. Unfortunately, that is all we are given; a hint. Anything beyond that can be found in the book. Which is all well and good, if you’ve read the book. If you haven’t, the intriguing Aberforth (played by the always reliable Ciaran Hinds, no less) will remain a tease. Or, perhaps worse, a distraction.
This is probably the most obvious example of my chief frustration with the film. It counts on the fact that you’ve read the book, throws you a token scene or character just so that you will be placated, then moves on, knowing that it does not necessarily need to pay off said scene or character. As such, the rest of us are left desperately desiring more. In that sense, I found myself wishing that the filmmakers would either “do it right or don’t do it at all.”*
Of course, everything that I’ve mentioned thus far has been a very specific frustration for me. It did not keep me from getting wrapped up in the story. As with all of the Harry Potter films, I couldn’t help but get swept away by the whimsy.
While there may not be complete satisfaction with all of the tangential plot points, I found that there was a great deal of emotional pay off. We finally see characters like Ron and Neville come into their own. We see romantic relationships long teased come to fruition. We see grief and sadness finally comforted. That these felt like true emotional closure and not simply loose ends being tied up is a testament to director David Yates, who has shown himself to be an actor’s director, if nothing else.
Yates displays an emotional sensitivity that is a rare treat in big budget blockbusters. There are a few quiet, often heartbreaking moments in the film; a glance here, a whispered plea there. As many of our heroes are faced with what will likely be their own doom, we really feel the weight of the situation. A contemplative quiet before a raging storm, the scenes of preparation contain both fatalism and hope. While this set up isn’t totally paid off in the battle itself, Yates’ instinct is a correct one. While so many other summer movies are content to feature one action set piece after another, few are willing to consider the consequences; few make an attempt to convey the physical and emotional trauma that such set pieces can inflict on those involved.
Perhaps my favorite element of the film is the portrayal of Lord Voldemort. In previous films, I felt as though Voldemort was merely evil personified. Every devilish order that he gave- indeed every sentence that he spoke- was delivered with barely contained glee. This was truly the embodiment of evil, which can be fun to watch, but isn’t incredibly compelling. In the past films, all we really knew was that we loved to hate Voldemort. In this film, however, we see a much more human side of the character. We see fear, desperation, and loneliness. We finally understand what Harry said in Order of the Phoenix: “I feel sorry for you.”
As Harry, Ron, and Hermione continue to seek out horcruxes and destroy them, Voldemort gets weaker and weaker. However, as is pointed out by Harry, this only makes Voldemort more volatile and dangerous. Voldemort, previously so smug, is starting to worry that he could possibly lose this battle. Fiennes is a solid enough actor to be able to play both fear and aggression at the same time, and the film is better for it. Over the course of the film, Voldemort turns from the embodiment of evil to a man that seeks to do evil; that distinction may seem small, but it makes all the difference for me. Suddenly, Voldemort is not some intangible evil. He is just a man; a very powerful man, to be sure, but a man nonetheless. He has the same desires and concerns as the rest of us. The key difference between him and us is not his motivations, but how far he is willing to go to realize his goals and avoid his fears. It’s a truly remarkable performance at a time when the series needed it most. Only when we discover how truly terrified Voldemort is can we really appreciate how terrifying he can be.
By the end of the film, I felt mostly satisfied. Sure, there were some loose ends that I didn’t fully understand and some of the wrapping up that did occur felt a bit perfunctory to me, but that sort of thing is to be expected of most finales. And, to be sure, this is more than a typical finale. It is not merely the end of a franchise; it is the end of an era. Many of us were very different people when we first starting watching these films, and to think that we were able to watch these characters and actors grow and mature as we ourselves did is to realize that it was perhaps impossible for any finale to be totally satisfying. I certainly know that I myself had a lot wrapped in up in these films. Between seeing the first film in November 2001 and watching the last film last week, my life has changed completely. In that time, I experienced both love and grief, fear and excitement, wins and losses. As Harry and his friends grew older and more seasoned, I felt a certain kinship with them that I have seldom felt with other fictional characters.
So, when I really take the time to think about it, I realize that I went into this film somehow hoping for more than a movie. I wanted some sort of emotional closure on the last ten years; not merely in the lives of the characters, but in my own. The film largely succeeded in the former, but not quite so much in the latter. But, as I have to remind myself, that’s perfectly okay. As personally engaged in this series as I have been, the film does not have any sort of responsibility to me; only to these characters. And, in the case of Harry Potter, Ron Weasely, and Hermione Granger (not to mention the dozens of other supporting characters), I feel that the film has fulfilled its responsibility, while also allowing the audience to share in their triumphs. And, when it comes right down to it, what more could one really ask for?
*Blogger Rudie Obias seems to share my frustrations. You can read his opinion here.