Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Through a Crystal Ball, Darkly

My mother once told me about a long, long ago parent-teacher conference at my grade school where Sister Mary Eva confided her frustrations with me, as a student in her reading class. She was peeved that when we all took turns in reading out loud, I always appeared to be staring out the window, "daydreaming," throughout. What irked her most was my ability to be at the right spot in the story every time I was called upon to read.

Like it's that difficult to skip ahead and around a group of 3rd graders vocalizing Dick & Jane's slightly older cousins without losing place.

Remembering that, it's easy to sympathize with David Yates and Steve Kloves, who have the choice gig of bringing home JK Rowling's monster of a series franchise, but also have that much more a hurdle than most, in trying to keep us readers from letting our minds wander too far ahead. We want their movie to resemble Rowling’s book - even if knowing it so well makes it difficult to remain caught up in their take on the tale.

Yates and Kloves’ answer to Sister Mary Eva's conundrum was to add two new particular scenes, one of which neither adds nor detracts from the story (although it does give reference to the true event that closed London's Millennium Bridge upon its opening day), another I must suspect hints at a whole chunk of side-plot that will go missing in the final installment of the Harry Potter movie series, as its precursor does in Half Blood Prince.

More effectively than those surprises, it's the film details and cues, the changes in the aging cast that keep us from rushing too far ahead and wandering.

In this installment, Hogwart's headmaster Professor Dumbledore takes a more active involvement than ever in Harry Potter's tutoring, though not for Harry's schoolwork as much as the future battle he'll wage against his nemesis, Lord Voldemort. Harry needs to find Voldemort's weakness and for that they need the help of the latest UK A-lister on the roster, Jim Broadbent. While all this is going on, Harry's less deadly foe, Draco Malfoy, has been taken under Voldemort's wing and has his own tasks to complete. Laying underneath is the mysterious and brilliant Half Blood Prince, the original owner and margin scribbler of one of Harry's not-so-gently used textbooks.

Daniel Radcliffe, as Harry, reminds me of a soap opera heroine. While he plays straight, sincere, and sympathetic, everyone else around him gets to have all the fun. Michael Gambon's Dumbledore is more urgent and more biting than ever; Rupert Grint’s comedic skills come to the forefront while Helena Bonham Carter, as the evil Bellatrix Lestrange, pretty much walks away owning every scene she’s in, she brings that much zeal to the role. (Move over Elvira, we now have a new, beyond disputing, Queen of the Night.) Scenery chewer extraordinaire Alan Rickman, aka Professor Snape, actually tones things down for a change.

The two revelations in HP-HBP’s acting department this time around are contributed by newcomer Broadbent, and longtime player Tom Felton, as Malfoy. The surprise in Broadbent's case is the pathos brought to a character whose surname, in part, rhymes with "smug." In previous movies, Felton was never given much to do beyond stand around and sneer at his social inferiors, what makes his stretch the more startling. Both show surprising, deep vulnerability in their roles but Felton, particularly, ups the ante by bringing a dominating physicality on-screen that hints he may become the dark horse to watch out for, post-Potter, of the younger cast.

The warmth and cheer of Hogwarts started draining in The Order of the Phoenix, also under Yates’ watch; whatever was left is more or less extinguished here, and most of the film takes on an ethereal rendering as a reminder of the supernatural aspect in the continuing saga. The only off note is the cheerful energy of so much of the Nicholas Hooper compositions. Balancing that, the mostly-scrapped John Williams theme from the first four movies does make an elegiac reprise in a 'goodbye to innocence and adolescence' scene for Hermoine (Emma Watson) and Harry.

By the end of HP&HBP, it’s all too clear childhood has been left in the dust for its protagonists. The only trouble I think the movies are having, no matter what pains are taken with the details, is in taking the final leap into adulthood along with them and being a movie for grown-ups. Until then, if my attention should wander from the bigger picture in favor of the details, I hope its admirers would be more forgiving than Sister Mary Eva.

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