It's the last of the "gutted and filletted" Harry Potter adaptations, since the last book got done as two films. I still like it a lot, though.
Once again, it feels like a drastic new direction for the franchise. Hogwarts doesn't feel like Hogwarts, even before the finale. It looks cold, non-fantastical and anti-cuddly. It's not a theme park any more, but actual Scottish mountains. Quidditch looks like rugby practice on a particularly nasty day in November. The snowscapes aren't a Christmas card, but "if you get lost in this after dark, you'll die." People like Maggie Smith and Julie Walters look almost shockingly old, as if aged by the horrors now back in Harry's world. The Oscar-nominated cinematography is cold, metallic and full of sometimes eccentrically chosen monochromes (sepia in a moonlit field?) and it's making Hogwarts seem emptier, more ominous and more real.
It's the only Harry Potter Oscar nomination for cinematography, by the way. David Yates brought in the French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and their first draft was so colour-graded that Warner Bros. had to tell them to add more colour as you couldn't see what was on screen. (That's still true to some extent, in fact, if you're watching the early scenes on DVD rather than Blu-ray.)
It also shakes up the narrative formula. It doesn't feel like a school year, for a start. (That's what framed all the others.) It jumps straight into the aftermath of Order of the Phoenix and I'd be slightly surprised if the final carnage happened to coincide with the end of the summer term. Maybe it does, in the book or in theory. Didn't feel that way in the film. Admittedly in outline you'd think it was classical Harry Potter formula (a fair few classroom scenes, a full Quidditch match for the first time since Chris Columbus), but in practice it doesn't feel that way. School's not important. School's something that happens in the gaps between the story, as a break from Death Eaters burning down houses and causing terrorist incidents.
It feels disconcerting. It's unsettling and uncomfortable. Being in Hogwarts doesn't feel safe any more and we've been deprived of the structure we'd previously been given by a school-dominated narrative.
It suffers from the lack of set-up in previous films, which shouldn't surprise anyone. In twenty years' time, I'd like to see the BBC remake Harry Potter as a series of TV series. Ginny's the main problem. She's been so sidelined in the previous films that you're almost going "Ginny who?" There's been no set-up, so Radcliffe and Wright are having to create a relationship from a standing start, handicapped twice over by Wright being a far weaker actor than the main three of Radcliffe, Grint and Watson. It stands to reason, really. She's had nothing to do. The last time she got any significant screen time was in the Chamber of Secrets, aged eleven. Of course she's going to struggle.
Oh, the film tries. It fails, but valiantly. It even has a scene where Ginny's wearing a dressing gown and kneeling down in front of Harry. She doesn't unzip him or anything, but look at Harry's exchange with Ron afterwards. "So, did you and Ginny do it?" "What?!" "Y'know, hide the book." "Oh... yeah."
Similarly, one's reaction to returning to Hogsmeade might be "what's Hogsmeade?" The half-blood prince's identity is an "eh?", thrown in at the last minute with no indication of any significance. We don't care. We might, perhaps, raise an eyebrow. Such things aren't a big problem, but they're still indicative of a loss of texture.
All that said, there's a lot here I enjoy and admire. In some ways, it's doing things I've been wanting to see back in the Harry Potter films for ages.
Firstly, the plot doesn't feel so brutally streamlined. It's not afraid to play around a little, even if closer examination reveals that the light-hearted stuff is intertwined with fundamental relationship stuff or set-up for the main plot. We have a quidditch match and the liquid luck subplot. Ron gets a funny (i.e. horrendous) girlfriend and comedy with amortentia-laced chocolates, which is a date rape drug that's apparently okay because it's used only by girls. The plot could have become inappropriate at terrifying speed had the boys shown even a tenth of the girls' interest in amortentia's possibilities.
Meanwhile Luna Lovegood almost steals the film just with her costumes, while all things Broadbent-related are gently eccentric and time-wasting in a wonderful way. There's still way too much danger and bleakness for us even to be reminded of the charm of the early films, but even so I see a quirkiness and whimsy that I personally think is necessary for Harry Potter.
Then we have the use of the regular cast. Firstly, important characters like Ron and Hermione aren't just getting sidelined again. Thank f$%$ for that. Secondly, we have the best acting yet in a Harry Potter film.
Well, there's Bonnie Wright, but apart from her I'm delighted. Tom Felton blew me away with what he's doing as Draco, for instance, creating this tortured brooding presence that's fundamental for the film. Where the hell did that come from? I'd liked him in the other films, but he'd done nothing like this. Admittedly his plot function had never demanded it until now, but even so I can't believe our luck that he could pull it out of the bag like this. Grint is still perfect (and funny) in his gormlessness, although I don't remember him previously looking quite this thuggish. You wouldn't like to run into him in a dark alley. And then there's Emma Watson, of course, who's long been the best of the juvenile leads and is getting something to get her teeth into. Look at the subtleties in her reactions, but at the same time look at which two actors get the biggest reaction shots when everyone's in trauma at the end. It's Watson and Maggie Smith... and quite right too. Smith's been criminally underused in these films, by the way, but here she's getting something to do.
Alan Rickman owns the film. All those weird-looking choices he'd been making, all that disconcerting anti-anger... it was leading here. In the early days, Rowling told Rickman things she told no-one else about where the books were going to end up. It's all come together. I love him.
Radcliffe is getting better and better too. His Harry is still basically a bit boring, as he's always been, but he's worked out how to own the camera and he's funny and different when high on liquid luck. "Not to mention the pincers." This is a Radcliffe who can look compelling just by standing in a train corridor. He's come a long way.
Jim Broadbent is the most fascinating of all, though. I love Broadbent and I'd had the highest expectations of him, but even so he surprised me. You couldn't get further away from auto-pilot. It's a complete performance, in a way that, say, Branagh's wasn't in Chamber of Secrets. Look at the layers. Look at the characterisation he's creating, unlike one's expectations of a Broadbent role. Look at how Radcliffe's big speech destroys him in Hagrid's shack. This is a gentle, silly, pompous man with a terrible secret and I'm tempted to call it the best performance of the series. He's up against some mighty competition, but bloody hell.
There's a paedophile reading available again, by the way, and so much more strongly than in Prisoner of Azkaban that I think it's deliberate from Rowling. I'm thinking particularly of Fenrir Greyback and by inference Lupin, although none of the details of that made it into the film. You'd need to read the book.
As for the film itself, it works. It's streamlined, yes, but the narrative has enough eccentricity and unpredictability that it doesn't feel that way. There's mystery again. (Harry Potter films need mystery.) Dumbledore is... wow. That ring of fire he summons is terrifying. Apparition looks surprisingly violent, for what's basically just teleportation. The collapsing bridge CGI at the beginning's a bit iffy, but what the hell. The film's going dark and succeeding at it, especially the ending.
I like it a lot. I like the entire Harry Potter series, obviously, but this is an excellent film. It's a shame they didn't do a two-part adapation of more than just book seven, but this film has enough wrinkliness and odd left turns to compensate for the plot prunings. It feels rich and characterful. I'm also not exaggerating about how much I loved the performances.