David Yates joined the Harry Potter universe with the fifth installment Order of the Phoenix. Interestingly, it’s the lowest reviewed film in the series (though a still very respectable 78% on Rotten Tomatoes). Although OotP is not my favorite of the series, I was always puzzled by the lack of love among critics with this film.
Yates had a lot of material to work with and it’s inevitable that much of the richness in Rowling’s book would need to be scrapped in order to adhere to time constraints. Considering the myriad of subplots in the book, I think Yates did an acceptable job in sifting through the material and only using that which was vital to the story that the films are telling, and not necessarily the books. Would I have loved more backstory on the prophesy and Neville’s and Professor Trelawney’s role in its formation? Of course. But that sub story is secondary to others that will ultimately lead to the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort.
Let’s not forget that Rowling herself has lead readers on a wide goose chase at times, feeding us with hints and storylines that in the end, had little to do with how things went down (my personal favorite was the reiteration of Harry’s green eyes “just like his mother’s.” I thought for sure that was some kind of clue, but alas…). It’s a common theme in fantasy stories. Just look at the TV show Lost, so many plots and possible twists and in the end, none were important. I will not fault Yates with leaving out plotlines that don’t advance the story. I will fault Yates with giving the audience hints of things read in the books, but never quite elaborating on them, which makes the pace of the film a little choppy, rushed, and quite possibly only dechiperable to the readers of the book series.
Half-Blood Prince may be my least favorite in the series only because I feel that it suffers from middle child syndrome, much the same way as LOTR: The Two Towers. OotP, HBP, and Deathly Hallows act like a separate three-part play in the series: all take place after the rise of Voldemort, and chronicle the wizarding world’s acceptance, planning, and ultimate defeat of evil. HBP is a film that advances the plot, but with no “foe” to defeat at the end it’s difficult to make it a cohesive story. What I will say about HBP though is that Yates’ directing is noticeably improved in his second attempt, with a much wider variety of interesting shots and sequences. I especially love our re-introduction to the main cast in the Burrow, with the shot showing off the many levels of the beloved Weasley domicile.
DH Part 1 is a film that does an excellent job setting the stage for our heroes at the end, and in fact, the film does a lot to improve on the book (I hear DH Part 2 does the same! The wait is maddening!). When reading DH, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the long drawn out exile of Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the woods. I appreciate Yates’ skill in condensing what felt like 1,000 pages into just the necessities, which emphasized the intricate emotional complexities the characters were experiencing. While the books pursue character development throughout, the later film installments begin to feel the compression of adaption. The best example of this (and the best theatrical addition to DH in my book) is the sweet scene between Harry and Hermione dancing. It was the perfect way to advance their character relationship without superfluous dialogue or exposition.
One of the strengths of the latter half of the films in the strengthening of the villain characters, which is fitting now that Voldemort has returned. We noted Ralph Fiennes yesterday, but Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix is perhaps the most charismatic Death Eater in the entire series. She brings a character to life that is menacing on the screen and veritably smoldering with evil. I also want to highlight the addition of Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood, one of the best student additions to the series.
However, Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge is the best villain in the Harry Potter series. Yes, better than Voldemort and Bellatrix combined. When I first saw her on screen, I hated her. Absolutely hated her. Despite the pure evil of Voldemort and the kooky madness of Bellatrix, they are villains that fans of the series love to hate. There is no love in the equation when it comes to Umbridge. The woman is a bitch. And Staunton embodies her so deliciously, with her pressed pink suits, lilting feminine giggles, and sweet as sugar disposition. It’s really quite remarkable.
Another strength of Yates’ films (and certainly helped by the source material) is the broadening of the world beyond Hogwarts to the Muggle world. Not only do we see the inside of the Ministry of Magic, but we also see Harry and Dumbledore interacting with Muggles. After so much time spent on the campus of Hogwarts, it’s a refreshing change to see how the wizarding world integrates with the Muggle realm, especially when Harry and Co. interact with it as teens, rather than children. The most dramatic example of Voldemort’s return impacting the Muggle world is the opening scene in Half-Blood Prince, with the Death Eaters’ destruction of the Millennium Bridge in dramatic fashion, which also propelled the film into being the most expensive film in the franchise.
David Yates (and to a certain extent Mike Newell) is credited with bringing the distinctive “British” quality to the Harry Potter films that many thought was lacking (despite it’s widespread appeal, Harry Potter is after all a British story). Daniel Radcliffe summed up the distinctions in the directoral style across the series by saying, “he [David Yates] took the charm of the films that Chris [Columbus] made and the visual flair of everything that Alfonso [Cuarón] did and the thoroughly British, bombastic nature of the film directed by Mike Newell and he’s added his own sense of grit and realism to it that perhaps wasn’t there so much before.”
Taken as a whole series, it is only the last four films that look anything like each other in terms of style, and out of all four directors the series has had, Yates and Newell have the most generic and hard to pin down aesthetic. Cuarón is clearly the odd-ball out, with PoA possessing in my opinion the most personal character of all the films. I think it was popular with the critics for this reason.
But it is Yates who has ultimately lead audiences around the world to this moment and a film that will end a beloved series. From the early buzz, it is clear that Yates has completed his coup de gras.
This is it! Tonight/tomorrow at 3AM, we will be sitting in a screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2! Review to follow Friday-don’t miss it!