Monday 18 July 2011

Postscript: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2"

I thought I'd closed the book on the Harry Potter series with November's deathless penultimate instalment, but a combination of grim completism, critical duty and generally favourable reviews elsewhere drew me back over the weekend for one final chapter. Did the series win me back round at the last? Not really. As with Part 1 - the first Potter opus where I felt the doors had been shut on non-devotees - vast swathes of the plot remain entirely incomprehensible to those of us who haven't read the books, demanding an acceptance of a particularly insidious form of cross-media synergy that I've always been unwilling to give. Looking back on the series as a whole, I just don't buy the line these films have successfully preserved the sense of innocence and wonder that might have been there when these stories were the domain of one woman, her pen, and a sheaf of writing paper. 

Those first entries were timid indeed, neurotically dramatising last scene in the books for fear someone in the target audience might object to the omission of their favourite bit, and not show up for the next movie. These last two films, meanwhile, have seen the figures, done the calculations, and figured out enough people who've read the books will turn out for the movies for the filmmakers not to have to bother spending time and money reaching out to anybody who isn't sure what a horcrux is. In the failure of the Deathly Hallows movies to explain this key plot point - the failure, finally, to get away from the books - resides the failure of the entire franchise as cinema, rather than as an profitable exercise in kidult brand awareness. The issue the franchise raises remains one of the primacy of cinema as cinema - not merely as an adjunct to a wildly popular spot of extracurricular reading - and it raises it at a time when the cinema, in even its multiplex form, is desperately fighting for its continued survival. (Sure enough, Deathly Hallows Part 2 is available in the gross-inflating 3D format, which will almost certainly result in this being the most profitable film in the series.) It would be harder to write the Potters off as a mere money-generating machine if they hadn't taken such care - notably in their design, still across-the-board superlative - in putting their processes up on screen. 

From a franchise concerned with what it is not to be able to afford the right school uniform, the light and shade of growing up, the final entries have marked a descent into a bloated, self-involved, at all points closed-off corporate mythology, concerned less with individual struggles and primarily with institutions and structures coming under threat. Part 2 offers an early stress test at Gringotts Bank; buildings that once held such vivid life are reduced to empty shells; bridges collapse; Hogwarts itself falls subject to a hostile takeover. Throughout it all, Ron, Harry and Hermione remain so very typically polite, and I sensed that one of the franchise's initial virtues - its Englishness - was finally coming to turn against itself. A belated flashback in the new film - more a clumsily inserted paragraph of exposition, actually - reveals (genuine spoiler alert) that Harry has been raised by his elders "to die at the proper moment". That idea of propriety is key to the films, their popularity with parents and their glaring limitations as coming-of-age texts - but it also at a stroke betrays the central character, reducing the boy wizard from an individual with his own destiny to the status of potential collateral damage: Rebekah Brooks with a better wand. 

Actually, the magic here, reassuring and firmly 12A-rated, would translate easily to a particular commuter-belt mentality, being full of wannabe hotshots waving their snakes at one another and really piffling squabbles over wand ownership; its idea of the afterlife can only be the banality of Kings Cross station, as though death were no more than a forward connection to Amersham. "It all ends," the posters promised, and yet - in a world of endless content - the Harry Potter series can never really end, instead heading towards a coda in which the same story begins all over again, only with the added pathos that everybody caught up in this franchise - cast, crew, viewer - has grown so old watching these damn films we could all now conceivably pass for our own parents. It's typical of the nagging conservatism of this series that it should finally come to regard childhood as no more than the first step on the way to becoming your mum and dad - which is fine, if your destiny is to inherit wizard genes or J.K. Rowling levels of wealth, but doesn't give the rest of us much to do, save to buy the books, watch the movies, and generally shut the fuck up like the good little boys and girls this particular cultural phenomenon would so badly rather we were. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is on nationwide release.

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