What is there left to say about Harry Potter films? It seems like only yesterday that I wrote of The Order of the Phoenix: “this Harry Potter is not a hugely enjoyable experience. The young actors, despite lots of practice by now, haven’t got any better (poor Rupert Grint as Harry gets found out every time they point the camera at him). Daniel Radcliffe as Harry doesn’t seem to be able to carry the weight of the emotion or the action and Harry himself still seems like a bit of a wimp.” And nothing much has changed this time around.
In the latest film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry is under pressure from headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon)to find out the truth about returning potions professor Slughorne (Jim Broadbent) who knows the secret of Dark Lord Valdemort’s whereabouts. But Dumbledore’s motivations are murky and the loyalty of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is called in to question. There is also a humourless and tedious diversion into the romantic lives of our heroes that does nothing but confirm the absence of acting talent on offer.
As usual, it all seems like it’s being made up as it goes along and the lack of narrative oomph is my big frustration with this instalment. It’s more than two and a half hours long, not much happens, and when it does it seems to take forever. The books may well be full of wonderful meanderings about spells, Hogwarts history, Harry’s Mum and so on but it drags the film into a dreadful unpropulsive malaise that a few effects-heavy set-pieces can’t fix. It’s as if the director (David Yates) said “we don’t need another game of Quidditch, it just gets in the way”, was over-ruled by the Studio because the fans demand it and then, 20 million dollars later, you’ve lost 20 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back. So, I blame the fans. Every last one of you.
So, after quibbling with one film for being too slow I’m now going to praise one for exactly the same thing. Birdsong in the Film Festival didn’t quite manage to keep me 100% awake (which may not have been the point) but I did admire it greatly. Directed by Spanish iconoclast Albert Serra (who seems to delight in keeping score of audience numbers left in the theatre at the end of each screening), Birdsong is a deliberately slow and still, black and white re-imagining of the Nativity story featuring three shepherds, a pretty angel, Mary, Joseph, Jesus and a sheep waiting in the blistering sun for – something: the Romans maybe, or God. Or Godot? In fact the three bickering Kings reminded me of Beckett’s classic play. They could have been Vladimir, Estragon and Bonaventura (most popular Catalan baby name according to Google).
Virtually free of music (apart from the sound of the creaky Paramount seats flipping up as people left), Birdsong was a pleasantly hypnotic experience, pleasurable because (unlike the bombastic Harry Potter) it left plenty of room for one’s own intellect and imagination to fill the spaces.
For those readers who were waiting for my verdict before deciding whether to see My Life in Ruins, please accept my apologies. A combination of Festival, work and family commitments have meant that this particular title hasn’t yet been screened. If it’s still playing this weekend I will get to it and report back.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 22 July, 2009. Which is a month ago. Still despite my best efforts I am a month behind. Sorry.