Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is officially a cinema sensation, bringing a record-breaking £23.75m worth of people into the cinema during its first three days of UK release. By contrast, The Tree of Life, which some big noises in France recently adjudged the best film of the year, made just over £400,000 in the same time period when it opened last week. The universally praised A Separation has taken more than two weeks to generate half of that.
I thought I’d take my haughty self along, then, to see what all the fuss was about before it finally came to an end. As a literary and cinematic Potter virgin, entirely ignorant of my horcruxes from my griffindors, I was relying purely on cultural osmosis to help me through. Plot-wise, it was surprisingly ok: I don’t think I got everything, but I got the gist. What I hadn’t realised was how derivative JK Rowling’s world is – of JRR Tolkien (the battle bits), Enid Blyton (Englishy/school bits) and even Jim Henson (goblin Griphook channelling Labyrinth’s Hoggle). No bad thing, necessarily; all the best stories are old.
The star of the show, Daniel Radcliffe, has a thankless task as the dull-as-dishwater all-round good egg at the centre of it all. Or perhaps it’s just that he can’t act: something about his face does seem fundamentally vacant, and he carries himself around with shoulders locked, as if searching for gravitas, à la George W Bush. Towards the end, his reaction to learning of his own impending death is not unlike the facial expression one might expect from someone realising they’d left an umbrella on a train.
Then there’s his two sidekicks, Hermione and Ron, who – in this film at least – appear to serve little purpose at all, other than as sounding-boards for our hero Harry’s thoughts. In three separate scenes during the first half-hour, they literally stand in the corner of the room, silent, whilst Radcliffe carries out expository conversation with the person they’ve gone to meet.
What’s notable is the way in which this personality vacuum at the centre of the film is so bountifully surrounded by the great and the good of British acting. Helena Bonham-Carter, Jason Isaacs, Michael Gambon and John Hurt all get their few lines – the camera even whizzed past Jim Broadbent a couple of times – and with all that talent gathered in one place, it’s difficult not to begin to think of what might have been in a parallel universe, in which the kids were killed off in episode one.
Ralph Fiennes is the highlight here. Not unlike Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life, he whispers to children in voiceover – although one quickly suspects that Voldemort is somewhere at the other end of the good/evil spectrum. His anti-nose make-up is brilliantly creepy, and he slithers every line out with gleeful malevolence – although Alan Rickman as Severus Snape wins delivery of the film for his fantastically over-the-top discharge of the phrase ‘equally guilty’ during a particularly ominous headmaster’s announcement.
I suspect I might have enjoyed the more heavily school-based plots of the earlier films over this one. At least in the Hogwarts sections there was the occasional suggestion of some much-needed wit: one of the film’s only throwaway lines (and a welcome tonal respite) sees Maggie Smith tell Julie Walters ‘I’ve always wanted to use that spell’ after summoning some particularly solemn looking rock-based guards. Otherwise, for a kids film about magic and goblins, it does seem to take itself incredibly seriously.
The filmmaking itself is perfectly accomplished, if unremarkable – a reminder that these Potter releases are not so much films as services to the books, whose revered status amongst a loyal and large-scale fanbase was always going to compromise any serious invention on screen. Would I have been more moved had I sat through all eight? Perhaps. As it is, I must confess that my interest continues to lie in the incredible box-office – by definition, getting people into the cinema that never normally go – but little else.