They’ve come a long way, baby.
The last director before David Yates to get back-to-back films in the Harry Potter franchise was the franchise’s first — and worst — director, Chris Columbus. Columbus was responsible for the drearily unimaginative Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, both of which reduced J.K. Rowling’s world to what an adult imagined a pre-teen audience would want. The real magic of Rowling’s books is that her charms transcend age and demographics. Why a studio thought the director of Home Alone 2 and Stepmom could pull off a similar magic trick is beyond us. (We extend our apologies to those of you who are Percy Jackson fans.)
It took Alfonso Cuarón in Prisoner of Azkaban to liberate the films from their slavish devotion to the books. His Hogwarts was dark and moody. The characters became more shaded and emotionally complex. The special effects weren’t deployed simply to draw attention to themselves. Mike Newell then took the baton and did an admirable job with Goblet of Fire despite the fact it ended tragically with the death of R-Patz (Cedric Diggory).
Yates took over with Order of the Phoenix, and you could argue that he has benefited from a trio of young actors who have matured quite impressively over the course of six films. That would be true. It would also be true that the series itself made a jump between books two and three, from wonderfully captivating children’s literature to literature, period, and that it would only be natural for the films to follow suit. Point taken. (You may stop reading now, Mrs. Columbus.)
But no matter. With his two entries in the series, Yates has given Harry Potter a jolt of menace and darkness equal to the text. He’s also given a little zing to the numerous romantic subplots, capturing teenage lust as chastely envisioned by Rowling herself. ( “Snogging” just doesn’t have a dirty ring to it.) Ron’s efforts to prevent Harry and Ginny from falling for each other were among the film’s more amusing touches, as was Ron under the influence of a love potion.
The most amusement in the film comes from Jim Broadbent, whose portrayal of Horace Slughorn may be even better than what Rowling drew up. Broadbent’s eyes enlarge and shrink in direct proportion to one another, never on the same page. In honor of his performance we’d like the Academy to create an Oscar for Facial Gestures. (He’s especially funny to watch when he’s on the periphery of a scene.) We couldn’t decide which description fit him best: a British version of an older, more rumpled Bill Murray, or National Lampoon’s Cousin Eddie once he gets really senile.
The cave scene where Harry and Dumbledore find the horcrux was perfectly imagined. If you read the book — and even if you didn’t — you knew exactly what was coming when Harry reached down to cup the water from the lake, and still we jumped. Both of us also caught in Draco Malfoy the disturbing hint of a lonely outcast about to retaliate in violence against his school. He’s on the verge of becoming the Eric Harris/Dylan Klebold of Hogwarts.
Neither of us have read the book in a couple years, so we weren’t distracted by deviations or omissions from the text with one exception: We could’ve done without the final scene in the tower where Harry, Ron and Hermione provide exposition and gaze hopefully toward film seven (or, more appropriately, films seven and eight). Where — and here’s your spoiler alert notice if you’re not one of the dozen people left on the planet who doesn’t know how it all ends — was Dumbledore’s funeral? Where was Harry telling Ginny they could not be together because of the task ahead of him? That scene in the book was enough to plant real doubt in our minds about whether Harry or Ginny might die in the final chapter. We were invested in Harry’s heart; in the film, he not only doesn’t have this conversation with Ginny, he has it with Hermione, who we presume must be center stage (with Ron sitting quietly in the background) because our three stars need face time as a phoenix soars past and into the sunset on a false note of hollow uplift. The emotional weight of Harry learning that Snape is the half-blood prince also felt like a missed opportunity. Harry’s flirtation with and interest in the dark arts provided the dramatic tension of the book. In the film, it’s an afterthought.
These are mere quibbles. The film may be 150 minutes, but it flies by, and it’s a blast. Thank you, David Yates.