Ralph Fiennes leads a Capone like committee of baddies who are out to get Harry Potter. We see H.P. himself at his house and he must escape from Fiennes’ pursuit. Lots of pals assume H.P.’s appearance to throw pursuers off the scent. H.P., Ron and Hermione disguise themselves as adults to get into the Ministry of Magic where they take a locket. Then they go from place to place and camp out in a tent Ron gets jealous and quits, leaving H.P. and Hermione to bond. Then H.P. and Hermione turn up at his parents’ on Christmas Eve and are attacked by a snake. Then they’re in a forest and H.P. gets a sword from a frozen pond and he’s rescued by the returning Ron. They then chat to a sorcerer in his lonely house who tells a story of three brothers. Then they’re attacked by Snatchers and taken to H. Bonham Carter’s jail where Dobby rescues them and he’s killed by Helena B.C. Then R. Fiennes steals Michael Gambons’ wand, and we wait for Part 2.
If you try to critcize H.P. you feel like a mosquito trying to topple a brick wall. There are a few enjoyable scenes: the tale of the three brothers is done like an Indonesian shadow puppet theatre, it reminds me of Regers’ 1950’s fairy tale silhouettes. The scene in the forest is quite atmospheric, the Forest of Dean in the middle of winter. The rest is underwhelming. The three leads are charisma deficient, prolonged scenes with them are an ordeal. I watched this with a couple of H.P. fans and they told me that new material has been interpolated, other scenes have been changed from the book. This is curious, since J.K.R. is known as a control addict, one of the reasons she split Book 7 into two films is to get the details from the book. It seems the romance between Hermione and Harry threatens to elbow aside any fidelity to the text, not that it’s any great loss.
I think I’ve alluded to this before, but the curious thing about a story dependant on magic is that it can undermine narrative development because it pre-empts conflict and its resolution. When you know you can always escape a situation, then is there any reason for engagement in the first place? The scenes are disjointed from an overall incoherence so that they do not achieve the cohesion of successive episodes. They are more like set pieces embellishing the real interest in the story: the sexual tension between the three adolescents. After all, the childhood audience for H.P. has grown up with these three leads so that’s the central concern, isn’t it? If (like me) you don’t read the books then this film does not stand on its own. There’s cross referencing and reporting back from the other books but the viewer hasn’t got that luxury if he/she watches this on its own.
Another problem with this and other films is the comfortable familiarity of the scenes. We either get modern British houses, public school Gothic in Hogwarts (but not in this film though) and a lonely ramshackle house in the middle of a bleak moor, a real forest and the Ministry of Magic entered by toilets. We get jumps from place to place without any underlying continuum (which we get in the Alice books). There is rationed visual novelty in each scene and what inventiveness there is, gets repeated in all the films: the moving paintings and newspaper pictures, the Dr Who hi-tech wands, the oversized python. There is plenty of gloominess which surrounds the eruption into hi-tech jinks which are merely frenetically extra contextual. The Ministry of Magic looks like a mixture of a Victorian municipal palace and a posh toilet. Dobby the elf looks like Vladimir Putin as a garden gnome
What. H.P. can offer is the chance for a well known actor to inject some of their own skill into the scene, and that can be a pleasure, although John Hurt only gets a few minutes. There’s a real shrewdness and sharpness in some of the group dynamics but it gets spoiled by the three leads dumping their amateur acting across scene after scene. Finally it’s all too much an expression of Britishness in the naughties, and those limitations will become starker as time goes by. Arthur Mee with 21st century knowingness.