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3 Stars Movies

A muggle tries to make sense of Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince

As Pottermania began some years ago, I recall being amazed at how similar it all seemed to Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic, which predates J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel by about five years. In it, boy wizard Tim Hunter, equipped with broken glasses and an owl, is prophesied to be an immensely powerful wizard. The forces of good and evil each seek to manipulate his upbringing in an effort to claim him for their own. For Gaiman fans, it was tempting to cry plagiarism. But subtract the glasses, and substitute the owl for a cute droid or two, and you could just as well be describing Luke Skywalker.

The generation that grew up with the Harry Potter books will just as surely sit rapt through the movies as they will quibble about the compromises made in their adaptation. Beware what follows is from the perspective of an older non-fan, who’s read the first book and seen the movies, but doesn’t hold them deep in the heart as the Harry Potter generation does.

Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith demonstrate to the upcoming generation of British actors how it’s done.

David Yates’ Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince is very, very long, and demands that the audience has retained an awful lot of lore from the previous movies (but again, the counterargument stands: you can say the same about Star Wars and Star Trek). I found the trailer totally incomprehensible, and the movie at times befuddling. I longed for a less novelistic and more movie-like narrative.

When a MacGuffin is finally introduced late in the movie, it adds a much-needed dramatic spark to drive the story, giving Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) a clear quest. But for those of us without a Potter wiki stored in our brains, what they seek — a Horcrux — is not clearly explained, despite reams of exposition from Dumbledore, plus a recap from Harry and Hermione (Emma Watson) at the end. Apparently there is more than one, two have already been found, and a third turned out to be counterfeit?

Helena Bonham-Carter in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Helena Bonham-Carter plays her baddie with relish.

It must have been quite a gamble to cast such a large troupe of child actors, trusting that they would grow into the acting profession over the course of several years. I wouldn’t say any of the child actors are bad, but they’re all unsurprisingly outclassed by the large complement of veteran British actors.

Timothy Spall and Helena Bonham Carter both play baddies with relish, but I can’t say I recall much about who they are and what motivates them. Nor whether returning characters played by Emma Thompson, Gary Oldman, and David Tennant are still good and/or evil, alive and/or dead. Didn’t Oldman appear in a fireplace in one of the previous movies? I guess he’s feeling better now. I can’t keep this stuff straight.

Alan Rickman is superb as always, every line reading a delicious mixture of humor and menace. As with Ian McShane in anything, Rickman is doing Shakespeare while everyone else is in a soap opera. His character Snape turns out to be the titular Prince, which I suppose raises two questions for the next installment: was his dangerously annotated potions textbook deliberately left to fall into Harry’s hands? And: what’s the significance of the nickname? He appears to be some kind of double-agent.

Emma Thompson in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Emma Thompson excitedly explains all the Potter lore to non-fans like myself.

Recurring villain Draco (Tom Felton) remains a wet noodle. Every movie sets him up as Harry’s nemesis at school, as well as cosmically fated for evil as Harry is for good. But he always winds up spanked and running away crying like a baby. It’s unclear to me if we’re supposed to consider him a real threat, but perhaps I’m overthinking things, and it is simply childish wish fulfillment that the school bully always get his embarrassing comeuppance.

Most of the rest of the movie is concerned with the teens’ romantic lives. I don’t happen to recall Ginny (Bonnie Wright) being a significant character in the previous movies, so the mutual infatuation between her and Harry seemed to have developed offscreen between movies.

But what has always puzzled me the most about this whole epic is Harry himself. What makes him so special? He’s not necessarily the most clever (Hermione of course), brave, or powerful. From what I recall from the backstory, his biggest claim to fame is that he survived an attack by the Dark Lord Voldemort. But the world’s most powerful wizard Dumbledore apparently trusts Harry more than anyone else. Surely there’s any number of more experienced wizards he could have brought along with him to look for the Horcrux; why did he specifically need Harry?

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2 Stars Movies

Desperate to Be Liked: Julian Jarrold’s Brideshead Revisited

Director Julian Jarrold’s lavish period piece Brideshead Revisited trots the globe like a genteel James Bond adventure, visiting London, Venice, and Morocco, but especially the opulent Castle Howard. From the perspective of an ignoramus that hasn’t read Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, this compressed version of what I imagine to be a grander prose narrative doesn’t much fit the traditional structure of a feature-length movie. For instance, a major character disappears halfway through, and the internal contradiction of another’s stunted emotional life versus his grasping desires is not a very cinematic subject.

The voraciously ambitious Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is the only child of a bitter, sarcastic, widowed father. He leaves his emotionally stifling home behind to study history at Oxford. His true aspirations are to be a painter, even though the chilly atheist does not seem to posses the rich emotional life of an artist. His middle-class London fashions divide him from his new upper-class peers, but from his first arrival on campus, he feels immediately drawn to the “sodomites.” As we learn more about Charles, we see that he does not so much share their sexuality as he is fascinated by their outwardly dramatic, emotionally honest natures, and considerable wealth – none of which he posesses. Curiously, Goode’s most recent screen appearance is as the similarly emotionless and sexually ambiguous Ozymandias in Watchmen.

Julia Flyte, Emma Thompson, Hayley Atwell, and Matthew Goode in Brideshead Revisited
“My loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires; I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those others we desperately wish to be”

One among Charles’ new friends is equally hungry to attach himself to him in return. The alcoholic, infantile Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) has more love for his teddy bear and housekeeper than for his extremely Roman Catholic mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson, whose role is not much more than a cameo, despite being featured front and center in the poster). Charles is awestruck by the wealth and opulence of Sebastian’s vast family estate Brideshead. As they pass through the chapel, the staunchly atheist Charles mimics his host and genuflects. Sebastian upbraids him, for not only is he from another social class altogether, worse, he is not Catholic. Charles first exposes the essential nature of his character when he replies that he was “just trying to fit in.”

But just as Charles’ cold home was defined by an unloving patriarch, Brideshead is blanketed by Lady Marchmain’s oppressive miasma of Catholic guilt. Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) escaped by decamping to Venice, where Catholics are a bit more liberal: they live their lives as they wish, and simply confess their sins away when necessary. At first, it seems only Lord Marchmain’s mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi) understands the situation: this homosexual dalliance is just a phase for Charles, but Sebastian is truly in love with him.

We later learn that Lady Marchmain, whom one might assume would be blinkered by her pious faith, is fully aware of her son’s pain. She also gives an even more astute analysis of what drives Charles to attach himself to the family: “You’re so desperate to be liked, Charles.”

Matthew Goode, Hayley Atwell, and Ben Whishaw in Brideshead Revisited
“Drinking is not a hobby, Sebastian.”

Charles is able to psychoanalyze himself in the end: “did I want too much?” All his actions are driven by desire: for the affections of the Oxford gay clique, to reside in Brideshead, to marry Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), and to be praised by high society as a painter. But Charles is icily detached, with a notable lack of emotion and empathy. He calmly divorces his wife offscreen, in order to marry Julia and become lord of Brideshead.

But as her family gives the sacrament of last rites to Lord Marchmain against his wishes, she perceives a miracle as he relents and reaccepts his faith in his final moments. Her own faith is rekindled and she rejects Charles. In the end, his actions have marked the final generation of the family, and that the desirous manse will be left to no one.

Categories
4 Stars Movies

Emma Thompson & Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility repopularized Jane Austen

In this blog’s opinion, Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility is the best-of-breed within Jane Austen film adaptations. Please note, however, there are two very good reasons to discredit my opinion on this subject:

I. Despite my English major, I am ashamed to admit I have read only one Jane Austen novel: Emma. Yeah, I know, I’ve got to get working on that.

II. Sense and Sensibility features two of this blog’s all-time favorite movie crushes: Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Any film featuring just one of these English roses automatically earns extra credit. Any film featuring Emma and Kate, together, equals porn (especially if they hop into bed together, as they do here… granted, as sisters keeping their toes warm, but still!). Any film featuring Emma and Kate, plus a screenplay by Emma, equals bliss.

Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility
“Always resignation and acceptance. Always prudence and honor and duty. Elinor, where is your heart?”

A few extra notes:

  • Guest commentator (and first-class Austen aficionado) Snarkbait has coined the best phrase for this genre: “Regency Era froth”.
  • Actor Greg Wise (John Willoughby) later became Mr. Emma Thompson, after Kenneth Branaugh foolishly let her get away.
  • Hugh Grant’s trademark stammer, persistent interest in the carpet, and out-of-control hair are still charming even in 18th Century surroundings. But it is difficult to stifle a snicker when the devilish Grant, as Edward Ferrars, expresses an interest in joining the Church.
  • I wish I had Alan Rickman’s (Col. Brandon) vocal cords.
  • Hey, look! It’s Tom Wilkinson in a cameo as the soon-to-be-late Mr. Dashwood! This blog thinks Wilkinson is one of the finest and most versatile actors working today.
  • Required viewing: Emma Thompson’s 1996 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar acceptance speech (not on YouTube as of this writing, but here is the text).
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