Gilbey on film: Harry Potter - the end of of the affair

The final movie in the franchise redeems all its predecessors.

And so it ends at last. I'm not referring here to the films of JK Rowling's Harry Potter series (though it's true that the eighth and final instalment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, provides a definitive conclusion) so much as the agonising wait for another movie in the cycle that would live up to the creepy wonder of its third outing, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, more commonly known as "Harry Potter and the Only One That's Really Any Cop". With that 2003 film, the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón put the "art" into Hogwarts and conjured an autonomous piece of fantasy cinema, rather than another wet-Bank-Holiday-afternoon schedule-filler in the style of the first two movies.

David Yates has had the luxury of a long run-up to the job of overseeing Harry's swansong (he has been at the helm since the fifth movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in 2007). Now he finally hits his stride and finds his swagger; the film is strong enough to have the unusual effect of improving its predecessors in the memory simply by association.

The decision to take the Kill Bill option when adapting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, carving into two chunks what was intended originally as one movie, now seems a canny one even to those of us who are not Warner Bros executives putting our children to bed each night on nests of $100 bills. What felt like meandering and time-killing in the first part of Deathly Hallows, where long stretches were spent with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) skulking around the forest in scenes that suggested an emo version of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, now makes better sense in the context of the new film. Part 1 was the calm, relatively speaking. Part 2 is the storm.

Essentially, the movie details the incremental defeat of Harry's nemesis, Voldemort, who has virtually guaranteed his own immortality through the use of horcruxes, which the wizard must find and destroy. A horcrux, as you may be aware, is an object in which part of a soul has been secreted, the better to keep it safe for future regeneration should the owner find themselves in dire straits. Think of it as analogous to a squirrel burying nuts, or a CEO diverting money into a clandestine account during a messy alimony hearing.

Harry sets out to destroy each of Voldemort's horcruxes. This simple quest structure, though festooned with the usual sort of clenched dialogue ("You seek my mother's diadem?"), gives the movie a snappy rhythm that's kick-started by a stunningly controlled set-piece at Gringotts, a bank run by elves with oversized hands and eyes like gleaming black marbles.

Down in the bank's vaults, which can only be accessed via the mine train from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, lies a goblet which once belonged to Helga Hufflepuff (not, as her name might suggest, a minor character from In the Night Garden, but a founder of Hogwarts school). Hidden in the goblet is part of Voldemort's soul, but destroying it is fiendishly complicated. The treasures in the vault multiply when touched -- silver plates spawn four identical offspring, cups give birth to a clattering litter of replicas -- in what amounts to a terrifying metaphor for materialism run amok, and a noisily clanging variation on the Midas touch. As Harry scrambles across this rampant, swelling mound of riches, grabbing for the goblet, it looks very much as though he is being eaten alive by Aladdin's cave.

If the rest of the movie never quite reaches the giddy excitement of that vault sequence, which has three levels of rapidly escalating peril, then it offers pleasures of a different stripe. As Voldemort, Ralph Fiennes slithers away with every scene he appears in, followed closely by Nagini, his good and faithful serpent, who proves that pets and owners really do come to resemble one another. As Voldermort invades Hogwarts, backed up by an army seemingly comprised of thousands of members of the Levellers' fan club, Fiennes savours a delicious monologue calling on the defeated pupils to join his forces. As the plucky Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) hobbles forward in an ill-advised cardigan, Voldemort sneers repellently and complains: "I was hoping for better." He's like a preening headmaster getting a buzz out of his own sarcasm.

Only Alan Rickman, as Professor Snape, rivals Finnes for lip-smacking thespian relish: when these two get a scene together, it's a hammy house of horror. Rickman's curtains of hair have grown so voluminous they surely now belong on stage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, while his painstaking delivery is on the verge of passing through self-parody and coming out the other side. Potter fans will know that all does not end well for Snape, but with Rickman in the role it has to be so for the sake of brevity. His delivery is already down to around five words-per-minute. Give him any more dialogue and there would be a further three films at least.

The practice of casting illustrious legends of British cinema in minor parts that any other movie would give to jobbing Joes on leave from Emmerdalehas given rise to a diverting game; in the absence of a snappier title, I shall call it: "Which Famous Actor Has the Least to Say?" Candidates in Deathly Hallows Part 2 include Gary Oldman, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters and David Thewlis, all of whom could have learned their line(s) on the way from the trailer to the set. A desiccated Maggie Smith looks like an early contender as Professor McGonagall, but is disqualified for a splendid wand-battle with Snape, and for the alliterative delight she takes in the line "a particular proclivity for pyrotechnics", which on her lips sounds like corn popping in the pan. The prize, though, goes to Jim Broadbent, who gets one line ("Potter!") and some brief off-screen rhubarbing.

As with any closing chapter, the cast list looks at times more like a casualty list. Mixed in among all the death, as in life, is desire. Love is in the air: Harry and Ginny (Bonnie Wright), Neville and Luna (Evanna Lynch), even Ron and Hermione dabble at last in the other dark arts. Didn't you find it was always like that at the end of term?

The general conservatism of the Harry Potter series has often led under-nourished viewers into daydreams along the lines of "What would it be like if only [enter name of devilish and/or demented filmmaker here] had directed it?" It's a credit to Yates that we rarely think that during the new picture. The vault sequence couldn't have been done much better by Guillermo del Toro; some hallucinatory close-ups of Voldemort as he wrestles with Harry will kindle fond memories of the satyr in Matthew Barney's Cremaster 4; and the design of one glutinous creature (the exact nature of which I will not divulge), coated in a blood-and-mustard mucus, is positively Cronenbergian.

Yates's direction and Steve Kloves's script don't overplay Harry's struggle as the films have sometimes done in the past when grasping at an earned mythical weight or profundity. Only the dialogue sometimes has a fortune-cookie feel. That said, there is one line -- "It's the quality of one's convictions that determines success, not the number of followers" -- that does at least offer a helpful lesson to the Twitter generation.
Deathly Hallows Part 2 has the bittersweet aspect one would expect from the closing episode to a cherished and long-running series, but it moves at such a lick that no one involved seems to be milking that element. Without the use of too many nostalgia-prodding flashbacks, it simply reminds us very gently of the vulnerable orphan boy at the heart of this over-embellished story. It's hard to imagine that devotees will not be richly satisfied, or that non-believers will resist for very long. "That was brilliant, absolutely brilliant," gasps Harry's best friend, sailing over London on an albino dragon. Ron's not wrong.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" is released 15 July

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era