Thursday, July 21, 2011


In a Yale University Introduction to Psychology lecture posted to YouTube in 2008, Dean Peter Salovey delivered a discussion of what love is. He declared that sexual attraction, commitment to continuation of a relationship, and intimacy (sharing of secrets) were the three components that made up love. This observation makes Harry Potter look like the perfect long-term relationship; it’s sexiness and teenage romantic tension is oft-remarked upon, the films have been released with cosy regularity over the course of ten years (yes, we’ve survived the seven year itch) and by god have we embedded our innermost desires in it’s characters. With HP 7.2 comes the demise of a cultural affair, a lover sweetly passing on in your arms after ten years of perfect romance.

So where were we at the end of Part 1?

The wizarding world is in a state of civil unrest. All government and prestigious bodies like banks and schools have been internally penetrated by a wicked and omnipresent mob known as the Death Eaters. Their leader Voldemort has almost reached a position of certainty whereupon he can coronate himself publicly, but has one last task: to slay Harry Potter, a young man that prophecy says stands between him and immortality.  Voldemort has a weakness: he has broken his soul into pieces and placed them in various magical objects for safe-keeping (these are Horcruxes). Meanwhile, Harry, Ron and Hermione must hunt and destroy each Horcrux, whilst outlawed and time pressured, so that Voldemort can be definitively assassinated.

This is a pleasingly rich political situation that has clear parallels in the real history of social, criminal and political crises. That Harry would save the world from a magical foe like a rampaging dragon is surely not as fascinating as his rebellion against a powerful despot, propagandist, mob boss and blackmailer whose rise to power has been carefully orchestrated over several years. This is a more credible conclusion as unlike magic, rebellion, tyranny and massacre are more likely to genuinely concern us than potions or giants. Rowling has built up this world over more than a decade, defining its rules, spells, the players, locations. The system is familiar. Now, deservedly, she is moving the major pieces over the board, changing the game with long-dormant characters, rules, and big revelations. The equilibrium we worked hard to understand is being ruptured like any civilisation in flux.

Of course, the more powerful and adult this world becomes, the harder it is to distinguish its quality from fan satisfaction. The blockbuster fantasy genre has for a long time struggled with the double-edged ‘Sword of Profundity’. If you try to appease fans by assuming knowledge and over-quoting, you risk losing your ‘walk-by’ trade. On the other hand, too much explanation spoils it for the fans. As always, the more seriously you try to take yourself, the harder it is for newcomers to get involved. Lucky for some, there is no illusion here that newcomers are the target audience. Unlike the recent spate of comic-based films, the millions of people who’ve read the books hardly add up to a niche market. 

Whilst performances from Grint, Watson and Radcliffe are about as solid as they are going to get, this is Alan Rickman’s film. He is equipped with incredibly complex material and via flashback montage provides a gut-wrenchingly moving mini-history of the Severus Snape character. This sequence perfectly combines revelation, romance and is paced so as to be pleasantly overwhelming. No, I didn’t cry in this scene. The tween beside me holding hands with her blonde-tipped boyfriend stopped throwing popcorn and cried. I, however, wept.

Of course, this is a film in which a number of favourite characters do die, yet director Yates applies a merciful, stylised glaze over these, as there are many. Those who have seen previous Potter films will notice a few differences in the musical score, which has happily abandoned the childish theme melody from previous features. Instead the orchestra plays at a level just below consciousness, enhancing emotive sequences but never used as an emotive cue. HP7.2 is also bloody exciting! The action sequences are well timed, peppered with humour, and colourfully display all of the magical weapons and creatures in the arsenal. Ralph Fiennes heightens the battles brilliantly as You-Know-Who, providing a classical yet potent portrait of unpredictable, guttural villainy. Keep your eyes peeled for a scene in which his laughter and a strange embrace give him a further manic edge.

This movie always had to be an exercise in nostalgia to some extent. What surprised me was how tastefully this was done. Favourite characters all made short appearances, but never out of a well-structured context, avoiding that ‘reunion’ feeling. Hogwarts is revisited, a few lovely in-jokes about Slytherin House are made and familiar settings from previous battles and struggles are returned to. Long-awaited romances blossom neatly. The epilogue (“19 years later”) serves to get over the melancholic hump once the action scenes are over, and establishes the legacy that long-gone characters have left upon the survivors. Having said that, the ‘where are they now’ facial ageing and potbellying plus abundant Hogwarts-alumni offspring are typical fan-freebie material. Something in me feels surprised that parts of it weren’t after the credits, as a wink to those who sat in their spilled popcorn for an extra fifteen minutes with lightning bolts drawn on their foreheads in pen.

This will no doubt be an important film for those fans who are more dedicated to the series than I. It has to be pointed out that a certain alignment of age has occurred between Rowling’s readers and her characters which no doubt explains a large part of her success. I’m certainly not alone in remembering the night of my eleventh birthday, when I waited for my owl-delivered invitation to study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It never did come, but perhaps that shared disappointment only drove us deeper into the fiction.

And what now for the Potter franchise? It’s stars are finally free to go about the uphill battle of proving their worth as ‘real and versatile’ actors. J. K. Rowling is working on an interactive website called Pottermore so that those who just can’t get enough will be let down more gently. No doubt this is a kind of methadone treatment for Harry Potter narrative addiction. Of course, the unsatisfying mirage of fan fiction will continue on as strongly as ever. The question to ask now is where will the next mega-franchise come from? And more importantly, could it ever be as wholesome, encourage reading, appeal over time, be as family-friendly or well orchestrated as the Harry Potter phenomenon? Now that the great Harry Potter love affair is over, all we can hope for is that it’s memory, resurrection stone or none, will live on forever, “in there”. (I’m pointing at your hearts, readers).

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