Sunday 8 July 2007

WATCH OF THE WEEK: Pottering on!

I sometimes feel terribly alone: being the one person in the entire world who hasn't read the Harry Potter books --- well nothing after the first volume-and-a-half which, when you consider how HUGE the later books have become, probably means scarcely 1% of everything J K Rowling has written...

So, I am both the worst and the best person to tell you about the latest (fifth - but you knew that!) film in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, opening nationwide on Thursday. The worst, because I have absolutely no idea how many magical moments of that great doorstop of a volume has been pared away in order to keep the running time of the film below 180 mins; the best, because, if it works for me then it works, first and foremost, as a film rather than as an adaptation of a book... Which it does - and rather splendidly, too!

That said, I did find that I needed to keep my wits about me - because it's all too easy to miss some of the star-turns' cameoettes! For example, Emma Thompson (Sybil Trelawney) had no more than a couple of speaking scenes while Warwick Davis (Filius Flitwick) had only a couple of non-speaking dittos. But, then even the divine Dame Maggie (Professor Minerva McGonagall) only gets a couple of moments in the spotlight.

I think I noticed David Thewlis (Remus Lupus), but I'm not sure if he actually spoke; Fiona Shaw (Petunia Dursley) did say something, but it was only one line - or maybe just a half... And yes, that does means the dire Dursleys are back on screen which, as far as I'm concerned, is not a plus point; never mind, the Weasley tribe have also returned in force with Arthur and Molly, as always, looking out for Harry and the Twins, Fred and George, providing some excellent fun just as things are teetering on getting a bit serious.

I won't bother to give you a synopsis of the plot, if you know the book, you don't need me to tell you about it and, if not... well, never mind, you'll understand (more or less) all you need to know when you see it!

Suffice it to say, that despite the obvious complexities of the story, the whole thing zips merrily (and later scarily) along and contains several truly enchanting scenes as when, during Harry's secret training sessions, the young opponents of He Who Must Not Be Named (aka Ralph Fiennes) conjure fanciful birds and creatures out of magic dust; and a tour de force finale that is desperately dramatic and --- since you know the books, you'll know why --- terribly traumatic.

The special effects are some of the best in the series, so far - especially those involving Fred and George and a fantastical fireworks dragon. Hagrid's cgi brother is less impressive and there are one or two dodgy shots of the junior wizards and witches flying their brooms over modern day London, where suspension of disbelief has to be temporarily - er - suspended!

As a side-note, I have to say that seeing HP & Co skimming past Canary Wharf Tower and the Gherkin reminded me of a question that always bugs me about the world of Hogwarts: how come no one has a mobile phone and they obviously don't have access to computers? As long as I think of Hogwarts as existing some time in the past - rather like Greyfriars School attended by Master B Bunter - it really doesn't bother me; but seeing its pupils whizzing across a 2007 London skyline got me puzzling again...

Anyway, I guess you really shouldn't think too much about the logic in a Potter film: I mean how come a young wizard as deft with the wand as Harry needs half a dozen representatives from the Order of the Phoenix to rescue him from the back bedroom of number 4 Privet Close, when the door is secured with nothing more than a flimsy-looking B&Q lock?

But enough...

Daniel Radcliffe seems to me to be getting better as maturity gives him a leaner-meaner look and he copes valiantly with The Kiss which appears pretty experienced for a first-timer and, unlike his love scenes on stage in Equus is achieved whilst wearing school uniform!

Apart from Harry's kisee, Cho Chang (Katie Leung) there's a new contender for Harry's emotional interest: Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) who has a melting Irish brogue and spooky charm. Emma Watson's Hermione remarkably avoids being upstaged by these Other Women and only Rupert Grint's Ron seems to have become rather marginalised - probably because everyone's finally realised what most us knew from day one: that, nice kid though he doubtless is, he really can't act!

The star of the show - apart from Gary Oldman who gives a spirited and poignant farewell performance as Sirius Black - is undoubtedly the fabulous Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbrage, a poisonous pink marshmallow who becomes Hogwarts' new Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor and later replaces the discredited Dumbledore.

Staunton's portrayal of Professor Umbrage (like Kenneth Branagh's Gilderoy Lockhart in H P & the Chamber of Secrets) is an instance of the films providing the defining portrayal of the Rowling characters and Dolores' twittering personality and silly, frivolous appearance (dressed like a cross between Barbara Cartland and Miss Marple) are in sharp contrast to her cruelly malicious nature. It is, without question, a deliciously bravura performance!

The film as a whole skilfully treads the fine line between the frightening --- Deatheaters come screaming out of the screen at you within minutes of the film's opening --- and the funny, such as ripe running gag of Filch precariously balanced on a series of increasingly tall and tottery step-ladders nailing up the latest injunctions from the Ministry of Magic.

I'll conclude with a curious piece of Potter minutiae that I happened on as a result of puzzling over something - or someone - in the film that I didn't quite get: viz, the House Elf, going by the name of Kreacher, who is seen creeping and muttering around the home of Sirius Black.

Now, I've always prided myself on my ability to spot a voice (it comes, I suppose, from so many years of working in radio and being a fan of animated films) and as soon as Kreacher started mumbling about, I instantly knew that he was being spoken for by veteran actor, Timothy Bateson, who is the last surviving cast member of the first British production of Waiting for Godot (he was Lucky) and who appeared in my debut radio play, 32 years ago!

What I couldn't understand was why, in a film already stuffed with characters, this one - who, seemingly, does nothing of any importance - was remotely necessary to the plot. So, when I got home, I duly Googled Kreacher and found this fascinating titbit of trivia...
David Yates told MTV Movies: "We took Kreacher out, and Jo [JKR] said, 'Listen guys, you don't have to put Kreacher back, but I'm just telling you, if you want to kind of keep a thread going for six and seven, you might want Kreacher to come back.' She basically told us Kreacher plays a role in seven, in a sense. She hinted. We thought about it for five seconds, and he came back."
So, something to ponder there in the last two weeks until all is finally revealed with the publication of.................

Incidentally, is it just me (as a confessed non-Potter reader) or is the "artwork" on that left-hand cover-option for volume seven (above), TOTALLY and UTTERLY HIDEOUS?


SharonM said...

Many thanks for the review Brian - can't wait to see the film.
Re the books, I thoroughly enjoyed the first three but thought the fourth one was a drag. However, I read five and six last year and they were compelling reads and I've got number 7 (the cover for adults version) on order.

Boll Weavil said...

Can I be the second person to say I've never read any of the books and, never even seen any of the films all the way through. I don't know why this is other than they just hold no interest for me at all. Is is maybe because the fantasy/magical world genre contains some of the finest books ever written already and I just can't be bothered with anything less ? Maybe its because I'm just too old and cynical nowadays...yes that seems more likely.

Unknown said...

Sounds promising after the previous films (all of which, I thought, were pretty dire with the third in the franchise being the least dire of the lot).

BFI Imax are showing this with the last 30 minutes in 3D as from the beginning of August so very tempted to try and get a ticket for that.

Elliot Cowan said...

I shall tell you my relationship with the HP books.
They had been popular for a very long time before I bothered to read them.
I was staying with a friend who was housesitting in Sydney and the first 4 books happened to be on the shelf.
I thought "Well...there here...I've avoided them for no real reason...let's have a look".
And couldn't put them down.
I love them.
I think the first two films are dreadful, and the following 2 are wonderful.
One thing the movies do is distill all the important information down into a tidy film.
The luxury of a book of course is detail and there is plenty in the books.

They don't have mobiles and computers because they use magic to do the same thing.

And yes, all of the covers, with the exception of the "adult versions" are fucking awful.

Brian Sibley said...

SO why DO Bloomsbury insist on dressing up J K Rowling to look like Terry Pratchett. Does Harry Potter NEED to be sold as if it's actually a Discworld novel??

Elliot Cowan said...

I am not sure.
The bloke that illustrates the Discworld books is a talented fellow (Jeremy something or other, I think).
I would wager that there is some kind of marketing boffin at Bloomsbury who thinks that the kids who read the books will relate better if the drawing on the cover looks like it was drawn by one of their own.

I do think it's a brilliant piece of marketing that they produce both kid and adult versions of the cover, the adult versions all being quite nice.

Elliot Cowan said...

Oh also - I think you've given the impression that you've not read the book, but Kreature actually plays a pivotal role in the plot of the book (I don't recall what it is right now).
I imagine they tied it into something else in the film (which I haven't seen).

Anonymous said...

Great review, Brian. Thanks for that. Oh, and envious glares that you got to go ahead of the rest of us :)

Let me fill in some blanks, and correct a couple of slips, if I may.

Remus' surname is Lupin rather than Lupus; and the new DADA teacher is Prof Umbridge rather than Umbrage.

Muggle technology, from something as core as mere electricity to something as modern as a mobile phone will not work within a strong magical field. So, although wizards can interact with the muggle world, they can't really take advantage of all those things that clever muggles have had to invent to compensate for their lack of magical ability. (I've always had a bit of an issue with the inconsistency represented by Dumbledore's Put-Outer, the thing he uses to extinguish street lights. But I digress.)

Harry is safe at Number 4 Privet Drive (rather than Close), because the house is protected by a powerful charm (the Fidelius Charm) that Dumbledore put on it when Harry was sent to live with the Dursleys. He needed protection when leaving the house because once outside of the influence of the charm, he could be a target.

Ron can't act? What about his twin brothers? They're much worse, surely?

I do hope Luna is good. I was hugely disappointed by Emma T's portrayal of Prof. Trelawney. I thought an Irish accent would have been ideal for that character.

And yes - the front cover looks awful, and far too Discworld. And not in a good way. Is that the UK cover, or the US one? (I was surprised when I discovered that they have different covers. Much more so than when I learned of the name change of the first book/film.)

Brian Sibley said...

ELLIOT & QENNY - Thanks guys... If anyone had been in any doubt about whether I'd read the books or not, the number of elementary errors in my review should be enough to convince them that I haven't... :-)

Glad my reaction to the cover isn't just a muggle-thing!

Elliot Cowan said...

Qenny - both of these covers are available in the UK.
The one on the left is for kids, and the one on the right for adults who are embarassed to be seen with the kids version when reading it on the tube.

Brian Sibley said...

If I was kid, I think I'd still be embarassed at reading a book with a cover like that!! The Discworld covers suit the books and were much better drawn: firstly by Josh Kirby and (following JK's death) by Paul Kidby.

Anonymous said...

Kreacher has "connections" to other parts of the plot and evildoers that will probably turn up in the final book.

Luckily here in the states we get the covers done by Ms. Grand Pre for Scholastic Books and they are quite nice.

Harry is also forbidden to do magic outside of Hogwarts and most especially against the relatives.(and has already gotten in trouble for this) So HE couldn't break the lock anyway.

Rupert isn't the worst actor in the bunch and he's mostly required to be goofy and comic relief anyway.

Can't wait for the movie and the book. Thanks for the review.

Brian Sibley said...

CHRIS - Thanks... I'm going to have to read these books one day, aren't I? Maybe I'll wait until I retire!!

Ryan Rasmussen said...

It's good to hear that the film is...good, since most of the (filmic) entries were on the draggy side. Jenifer and I will be seeing it on Wednesday (her birthday!) but NOT in Imax 3-D!

P.S. I also have read only the first one-and-a-half volumes, and now find myself missing the comraderie of the True Believers.

P.P.S. Caught The Chumbscrubber on DVD. Decent flick, though tough to really enjoy without any likeable characters. But too true in its depiction of U.S. suburbia.

Brian Sibley said...

RYAN - Hope you enjoy HP&OotP. I thought it was the best film so far...

You're right about THE CHUMSCRUBBER - if someone more likeable that Jamie Bell had been cast it might have been a different story...