Tag: Alan Rickman

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

I can’t lie: no matter how many faults it has, Costner’s Robin Hood epic is above all criticism for me

Director: Kevin Reynolds

Cast: Kevin Costner (Robin of Locksley), Morgan Freeman (Azeem), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Lady Marian), Christian Slater (Will Scarlett), Alan Rickman (Sheriff of Nottingham), Geraldine McEwan (Mortianna), Michael McShane (Friar Tuck), Brian Blessed (Lock Locksley), Michael Wincott (Guy of Gisborne), Nick Brimble (Little John), Harold Innocent (Bishop), Walter Sparrow (Duncan), Daniel Newman (Wulf), Daniel Peacock (Bull), Sean Connery (King Richard)

I find there’s a simple way of telling if someone is the same generation as me. Hum a few bars of Bryan Adam’s Everything I Do. Adopt an American accent and proclaim you are showing “English courage”. Rasp about cutting someone’s heart out with a spoon or calling off Christmas. Mime shooting a flame tipped arrow or say before carrying out anything complex that you’ve “seen it done many times…on horses.” All of which is to say, if you haven’t already guessed from this parade of in-jokes, that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is one of those films of my youth immune from criticism.

The second biggest box-office hit of 1991, having beaten a crowd of Robin Hood pictures to the screen, Prince of Thieves is, to be honest, a ridiculous cheese-fest of wildly inconsistent tone and acting styles, murkily shot and hurriedly plotted. It feels at times like what it is – a film rushed to the screen as quickly as possible to hit a deadline. I know truth be told, it’s a bit of a mess. But it doesn’t matter. I love it. If you, like me, saw this for the first time around 12 or 13 how could you not? For all its many flaws, it’s a massive, rollicking adventure. So, while my head tells me Errol Flynn is the finest Robin Hood on screen…my heart will always be with Costner’s oddly accented outlaw.

In 1194 Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner) the son of a baron (Brian Blessed of all people!), is captured by the Moors on Crusade and escapes along with fellow prisoner Azeem (Morgan Freeman), who vows to repay his life debt to him. Together they arrive in England to find the land in urgent need of healing. The tyrannical Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) plots to seize the throne and Robin is named an outlaw. He and Azeem find sanctuary in Sherwood Forest, where Robin becomes the leader of a band of outlaws. He robs the rich to give to the poor, romances Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and fights to uphold justice.

All of this is played out in the very best blockbuster style, with logic frequently thrown out of the window in favour of excitement, jokes and gravity defying arrows. Kevin Reynolds was hired to direct to lure on board his fellow Kevin (and mate) Costner, then the biggest star in the world. Costner as the wealth-redistributing bandit is, in reality, as bizarre a piece of casting as Richard Gere playing Lancelot. Never the most confident with accents, rushed producers essentially told Costner told to not bother, concluding most moviegoers wouldn’t give a toss if Nottingham’s most-famous son spoke with a Californian twang. They were right. And to be honest, it’s part of the film’s crazy charm.

After all, the film plays fast and loose with everything else about England. This is the film where Robin arrives at the White Cliffs of Dover and announces it’s a day’s walk to Nottingham. That is, let me tell you, a very long day – particularly when you go via Hadrian’s Wall (which Costner then confidently tells us is but five miles from Nottingham). Any grasp of actual English history is completely irrelevant to a film set in a fantasy merrie-England, where the Bayeux Tapestry, Celtic warrior tribes, lords who dress like the KKK, witches and a King Richard who looks and sounds like Sean Connery (the real Richard was 38 and French) all co-exist.

But who cares? Nothing in the film is meant to be taken seriously, and surely Reynolds and co reckoned we’d work that out when Costner – for whom five years in prison has made no impact on his film-star good-looks but left his fellow prisoners scrawny, wasted men of skin and bone – slams his hand down on an anvil and announces to a man preparing to cut his hand off “This is English courage!” in that Californian lilt. It’s not just him: accent-wise the film is all over the place. Christian Slater also makes no attempt at an accent while Mastrantonio’s is impeccable; the Merry Men come from all over the place, Mike McShane vaguely flattens his Canadian accent and Morgan Freeman goes all in on a Moorish accent. This all adds to the fun.

And what fun it is. Reynolds can shoot the hell out of an action set piece and if you don’t get a buzz from seeing Costner shoot a flaming arrow in slow-mo, firing another through a rope, or taking down rampaging Celts with them like they were heat-seeking missiles, there is something wrong with you. A flame-soaked battle in Sherwood is an action highlight – full of drama and terror – and the film’s closing grudge-match between Robin and the Sheriff a high-octane mano-a-mano sword fight.

It gains a huge amount from its impeccable score. Of course, we all remember Bryan Adam’s Everything I Do (it was number one for most of 1991). But the film’s real MVP is Michael Kamen, whose luscious, rousing score lifts even the film’s weakest moments to the heights of classic action adventure. The film’s opening number is a triumph of epic scene-setting. His work fills moments of triumph with joy, beautifully complements (and improves!) comedy and provides a genuinely moving romance theme that bolsters the chemistry between Costner and Mastrantonio’s strong-willed and independent Marian (even though film rules demand the woman introduced to us as something akin to a ninja ends the film a white-dressed damsel-in-distress).

The film’s other MVP is, of course, the late, great Alan Rickman. If you wonder why a generation of people worshipped Rickman, you need only look at his leave-nothing-in-the-dressing-room performance here. So reluctant to play another villain that he only agreed when given carte blanche to play the role however he wanted (including re-writing all his lines with the aid of friends Ruby Wax and Peter Barnes), Rickman delivers his second iconic villain after Gruber. He has a gleeful, OTT, pantomime glee, seething with frustrated impatience at his incompetent underlings but carrying more than enough genuine menace to be threatening. Every line he has – almost every single one – is laugh-out loud funny, either due to its grandiosity or Rickman’s utter commitment and darkly sexy energy (he also makes a beautiful double bill with Geraldine McEwan: two pros milking the film’s comic potential for all it is worth).

Rickman dominates the film – although of course, as he himself said, he had the far more fun and wilder part than Costner – and is central to many of its most iconic moments. What makes it work is Rickman is very serious about not taking the film very seriously: he’s not laughing at it or wanting us to know how superior he is to it: instead he throws himself with gusto into an all-action panto.

With this sort of thing, you can forgive the film’s wildly inconsistent tone (it ends with a prolonged semi-rape joke for goodness sake!), its at times forced attempt to suggest a community among a random collection of Brit character actors playing the merry men, or its meandering into some dark material. Morgan Freeman not only shows surprising action chops, he also gets a showcase for his mentor and comedic abilities. The resolution of the antagonistic relationship between Robin and Will Scarlett is surprisingly effective (it’s another note of the film’s bizarreness that we are meant to believe Costner and Slater both sprang from the Blessed loins) and those action set-pieces work.

The film wasn’t always a happy experience – Reynolds was forced to shoot it in ten weeks on no real prep and was locked out of the editing suite – but perhaps the rush helped create the boisterous adventure we end up with. Maybe years of study and research would just have been less fun. Who cares about dusty books when Robin and Marian can kiss at a misty riverside to the tune of Bryan Adams or Costner splits an arrow in two with another arrow at a thousand paces? Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a big, silly, action film full of flaws. And I wouldn’t change a frame of it.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Blood, guts and gore in this horror-tinged, claret-dipped Burton adaptation of Sondheim’s musical

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd), Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs Lovett), Alan Rickman (Judge Turpin), Timothy Spall (Beadle Bamford), Jayne Wisener (Johanna Barker), Sacha Baron Cohen (Adolfo Pirelli), Laura Michelle Kelly (Lucy Barker/Beggar Woman), Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony Hope), Ed Sanders (Toby Ragg)

Sondheim’s blood-soaked musical about the infamous serial-killing barber, intent on revenge against the judge who transported him to Australia and stole his late wife, took years to make it to screen. His intensely theatrical, intricate musical masterpieces don’t always translate to film – they lack that crowd-pleasing oomph. What with Todd slashing throats with misanthropic glee, aided by besotted neighbour Mrs Lovett baking the bodies into pies, and no wonder Sweeney was a difficult pitch.

However, it’s practically tailor-made for the High Priest of Gothic Oddity, Tim Burton. A lifelong Hammer horror fan, it’s no surprise Burton had loved the musical since first seeing it in 1980. He’s a perfect match for this stuff, and his film is a bleak, heavily desaturated, oppressively grim and strikingly optimism-free descent into a subterranean hell, with almost every scene accompanied by a free-flowing deluge of Shining-style levels of blood.

Sweeney Todd is a design triumph (Oscar-winning for its production design and nominated for its costumes). It’s London is like an Oliver! set run through a fevered nightmare slasher film. Everything is grandiose, filthy and above all cold, oppressive and unwelcoming. Most of the light comes from the reflection of moonlight on the blades of Todd’s razors, and the basement of his building is a gruesome horror show, with a pumping furnace and mangled body parts in a mincer.

The film shocked critics expecting a more traditional Broadway musical translation with the dark glee it embraces the gore. When throats are slashed – which occurs as regularly as clockwork – blood sprays over the actors, camera and virtually everything else. Sweeney’s chair drops his victims head-first into the cellar: each fall is seen in terrible detail, bodies landing with a sickening crunch, twisted out of shape and heads smashed open on the stone floor. There is little black comedy, the film embracing flat-out horror.

It also focuses on the black hate in Sweeney’s heart, his fixation on revenge at any costs and the lack of any trace of humanity within him. While Mrs Lovett longs to turn this “relationship” into something more intimate and loving – she even sings about it in By the Sea to the stony-faced indifference of Sweeney – to Sweeney she is little more than a convenient means to an end. Bravely, no real attempt is made to make us feel real sympathy for this brutal killer – and the visceral brutality of his killings only adds to this.

The film is dominated by its two leads, simplifying the musical down to something leaner, swifter and meaner. This is a dark revenge tragedy doubling as a character study of its two leads’ souls. These places a lot of pressure on Depp and Carter. Sweeney Todd was very much at the apex of a trend in musical film-making where stars were trained to sing, rather than casting skilled singers who can act. Sweeney Todd is an immensely complex musical, with deeply challenging lead parts. Even using the intimacy and immediacy of the camera to bring the scale down (they don’t need to hit the back row), it still must have been intimidating to sing with very little experience.

Depp and Carter however acquit themselves well. Working with a director they both trust implicitly, they give dark, twisted performances of unspoken longings. Depp, in one of his finest and most restrained performances (which says a lot about the irritating abandon of many of his other roles) that stresses Sweeney’s sociopathic coldness. He is a tortured man, turning his unhappiness and self-loathing into a weapon to slice open the world. Carter channels sociopathic eccentricity with a tenderness, vulnerability and desperation for love.

As singers however, they are competent rather than inspired. Depp goes for an earthy, Bowie-esque, Rex Harrison-paced growl that conveys the emotion but simplifies the songs and robs them of some of their impact. Carter’s more lively rendition carries more character, but in both cases you wonder what would have happened if the film had married its cinematic visuals with assured Broadway performers. The best singers by far are Jamie Campbell Bower (whose role as the would-be lover of Sweeney’s long-lost daughter is heavily cut) and Ed Sanders, who is excellent as the orphan taken under Mrs Lovett’s wing (West End-star Laura Michelle Kelly, perversely, barely sings a note).

The focus on Sweeney and Mrs Lovett leaves little room for the other actors. Rickman brings a subtle perversion to Judge Turpin – even though, bless him, he’s not the best singer – and Spall a creepy eccentricity to the Beadle. But this is the Sweeney show, a decision that robs the film of any trace of the more hopeful elements of the original, to zero in on the dark horrors.

The film pulls few punches, but never makes us care about Sweeney. For all the trims, it’s surprisingly poorly-paced (especially considering its short run-time). Such little importance is given to the supporting characters, time feels wasted when we are with them. The cuts also stress how little actual plot there is around Sweeney and Mrs Lovett (once they decide to embark on a life of crime, there is little that happens to sustain the film through its middle act).

The film is a Gothic slasher triumph, but it’s perhaps neither a great musical nor a truly engaging tragedy. A slice more humanity, in between the slashed throats, might have helped a great deal.

Michael Collins (1996)

Liam Neeson is outstanding as Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins

Director: Neil Jordan

Cast: Liam Neeson (Michael Collins), Aidan Quinn (Harry Boland), Stephen Rea (Ned Broy), Alan Rickman (Eamon de Valera), Julia Roberts (Kitty Kiernan), Ian Hart (Joe O’Reilly), Brendan Gleeson (Liam Tobin), Sean McGinley (Smith), Gerard McSorley (Cathal Brugha), Owen O’Neill (Rory O’Connor), Charles Dance (Soames), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Assassin), Ian McElhinney (Belfast cop)

Britain’s colonisation of Ireland left a poisonous historical legacy that blighted much of the twentieth century. The story of Irish independence, is also one of guerrilla and political brutality, civil war and terrible lost opportunities. Jordan’s biopic of Michael Collins is a study of the man who did more than any other to turn the IRA into an effective guerrilla fighting force – only to be consumed by the very same uncompromising ruthlessness he had set in motion. It’s a powerful and beautifully made film that seeks to explore just how and why violence and politics ended up hand-in-hand in Ireland for almost 100 years.

It opens with the 1916 Easter Uprising, an ignominious failure which the British managed to turn into a glorious one by executing rather than imprisoning its leadership. It’s one of many misjudgements in our occupation. It also the impetus for the young Michael Collins (Liam Neeson) to realise that playing by conventional military roles simply means defeat for the Irish time and again. Put simply, the IRA needs to stop trying to be a field army and instead become a guerrilla army, launching targeted hit-and-run terrorist attacks on the British. It’s a hugely successful campaign – despite the doubts of Sinn Fein leader Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman), who favours more conventional conflict (“They call us murderers!” he cries, with some justification). But after the British agree a Treaty that divides Ireland, the IRA splinters into pro- and anti Treaty factions. Can Collins put the cork back in the bottle of violence, before the country tears itself apart?

Of course, anyone with a passing knowledge of history knows that he can’t. Hanging over the entire film is the knowledge that Collins’ new methods of political assassination, plainclothes soldiers, bombs and bullets in the middle of the night will eventually expand into the indiscriminate bombing and shooting that consumed Ireland for decades. Not that Collins will live to see it, as he was assassinated aged 31 attempting to negotiate an end to Civil War. What makes Collins such an engaging and intriguing figure is that he (or at least the version we see in this film) was a man forced into methods he knew were wrong, to achieve an end he knew was right.

Neeson is superb as the charismatic, blunt yet poetic Collins who is noble enough to know that training young men to quickly and efficiently commit murder is an ignoble legacy. Jordan’s film doesn’t condone Collins use of violence, but establishes why it was necessary. Playing by more conventional rules simply wasn’t going to work – and Ireland didn’t see why they had to wait for British politics to shift. Unlike, say Gandhi in India (and Michael Collins makes a dark companion piece with Attenborough’s Gandhi, two charismatic campaigners choosing radically different paths to independence), Collins believed Britain had to be forced to see holding Ireland wasn’t worth the blood sacrifice and emotional cost. (Jordan’s film is also clear that Britain’s hands were equally dirty, the British conducting their own counter-campaign of assassination and violence).

The tragedy that Jordan finds in all of this is that, when the British were gone, Ireland had become so used to dealing with political problems with violence that they couldn’t imagine solving their disagreements with anything else. Collins is in fact too successful: and the film demonstrates that in radicalising his followers, he’s unable to gearshift them towards compromise. His attempts to get Sinn Fein to accept a Treaty that offers a workable compromise (as opposed to an unwinnable full-scale war), leads to him becoming a victim of exactly the sort of insurgency he pioneered in the first place. To Jordan he is a man trapped in a world of his own making, unable to remove the gun from Irish politics.

Michael Collins makes some compromises with history – something that was bound to get it attacked when dealing with events of such earth-shattering controversy – but it always feel spiritually accurate. The British Black and Tans really were as brutal as they seem, and while they didn’t use an armoured car on the pitch at the “Bloody Sunday” massacre at Croke Park, they did shoot indiscriminately at the crowd and fire at the stadium from an armoured car outside causing 14 fatalities (including two children) and 80 serious injuries. Similarly, in the aftermath of Collin’s assassination of most of the British intelligence operation in Dublin, three IRA leaders were “killed while trying to escape” (even if these were different men than the one who suffers this fate in the film). Just as IRA killings in the street were swift and brutal, so interrogations in Dublin Castle could stretch way beyond what the Geneva Convention would suggest was acceptable.

Much of the first half of the film is structured in the style of an old-fashioned gangster film, with hits and street gangs. Plucky IRA under-dogs (and Neeson’s Collins is so charming, you immediately root for him), take-on the more hissable baddies in British intelligence (led first by a bullying Sean McGinley and then a suavely ruthless Charles Dance). But the romance slowly drains out of this as lifeless bodies hit the floor – and Jordan always gives the focus to the dead after they fall, regardless of their ‘side’. The film has an infectious momentum, which makes its final acts, with their air of tragedy, even more sad and moving. It’s all also quite beautifully shot by Chris Menges, the film bathed in some of the most luscious blues you’ll see.

While Michael Collins is more sympathetic to the Irish (as you would expect), it clearly shows the psychological damage of killing. Hesitant shooters become increasingly ruthless at the cost of their humanity. Collins spends a ‘dark night of the soul’ openly confessing that he hates what he is making young men do and knows it is morally wrong. In the end this explains why methods were chosen, but doesn’t praise them – just as it doesn’t outright condemn them, considering what the Irish were up against. It’s a difficult balance, but very well walked.

There are flaws. Excellent as Liam Neeson (at the time 15 years older than Collins was when he died) and Aidan Quinn as his number two Harry Boland are, the film’s insertion of a love triangle between them and Collin’s eventual fiancée Kitty Kiernan often descends into weaker “Hollywoodese”. It’s not helped by having Kitty played by an egregious Julia Roberts, who struggles gamely with the Irish accent, and who never transcends her star status.

Additionally, while the film has an excellent performance by Alan Rickman (in a pitch perfect vocal and physical impersonation) as Eamon de Valera, it also repositions de Valera as an antagonist. Although de Valera certainly was a prima donna who associated his interests and Ireland’s as being one and the same, the film implies that de Valera’s actions are motivated as much by jealousy as principle and lays most of the blame for the civil war on him. Not to mention implying de Valera’s complicity in Collins eventual death (a heavily disputed assertion, strongly denied by de Valera).

Michael Collins though is a thoughtful, complex and engaging film that brings a tumultuous period of history successfully to life. Jordan’s film manages to wrestle an enthusiastic admiration for Collins, with a questioning exploration of how his actions (however well motivated) led to a legacy of violence. But it doesn’t lose sight of how Collins was aware he was using wicked methods for a noble aim, or that his goal was to bring peace. Wonderfully acted by a great cast (every Irish actor alive seems to be in it), with Neeson sensational, it’s an essential watch for anyone interested in this period of history.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet are superb in probably the greatest Austen adaptation on film, Sense and Sensibility

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Emma Thompson (Elinor Dashwood), Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood), Alan Rickman (Colonel Brandon), Hugh Grant (Edward Ferrars), Greg Wise (John Willoughby), Gemma Jones (Mrs Dashwood), Harriet Walter (Fanny Dashwood), James Fleet (John Dashwood), Robert Hardy (Sir John Middleton), Elizabeth Spriggs (Mrs Jennings), Imogen Stubbs (Lucy Steele), Hugh Laurie (Mr Palmer), Imelda Staunton (Mrs Palmer), Emilie Francoise (Margaret Dashwood), Tom Wilkinson (Mr Dashwood)

The world of Austen adaptations stands on two pillars – and both of them date from 1995. One is the BBC Pride and Prejudice, the other this luminous adaptation of Austen’s first novel, written by and starring Emma Thompson. It’s hard to pull together a review when a film pretty much plays its hand perfectly: and that’s exactly what Sense and Sensibility does. The film is a complete delight, in which Thompson takes surprisingly large liberties with many of the details of the novel, but brings to the screen a version that never once loses the spirit and heart of Austen’s work. It’s an immensely impressive achievement, and one of the finest literary adaptations ever made.

After the death of Mr Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), the Dashwood estate passes into the hands of his son John (James Fleet) and John’s ambitious wife Fanny (Harriet Walter), leaving his second wife (Gemma Jones) and their daughters sensible Elinor (Emma Thompson), passionate Marianne (Kate Winslet) and giddy schoolgirl Margaret (Emilie Francoise) suddenly homeless. However, this does bring Fanny’s gentle and kind brother Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) into Elinor’s life, and an unspoken romance builds between the pair. There is passion in the air for Marianne at their new home, when she is rescued from a fall in the rain by the dashing Willoughby (Greg Wise). But are there secrets in the pasts of both men that could threaten the sisters’ happiness? And how did Willoughby’s life intersect with the reserved Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman)?

Thompson’s superbly written script is a faultless adaptation that makes not a single poor choice, and expands and enriches several characters (in particular the three men) to great effect. Thompson not only brings much of the humour and wit in Austen to the fore – the film is frequently very funny – she also understands here truth and tenderness. Which is why the film is so beloved: it’s a film overflowing with empathy and heart for its characters which builds the emotional investment as skilfully as it does the comedy. It culminates in a proposal scene which I don’t think has ever not placed a lump in my throat.

To list all the excellent adaptation ideas would take forever so I’ll use one example. The film wisely expands much of the early character interactions, in particular deepening and exploring the early meeting between Elinor and Edward. A section that takes up barely one of the book’s (very short) chapters here fills the first 20 minutes of the film. It’s vital as it superbly establishes the natural warmth and intimacy between these two, and their perfectly complementing personalities.

It also allows Grant – in one of his most romantically winning performances – to display some deeply endearing light comedy, as well as establishing Edward as a thoughtful, sympathetic and decent man, who forms bonds quickly with all the family (especially young Margaret) through his genuineness. It also keeps us rooting for a relationship – and for a character – who the film often has to leave off screen for vast stretches, and leaves us in no doubt that his (later revealed) engagement to Lucy Steele (a woman he does not love, and who is interested in him solely for his position) comes from the same motives of decency, duty and the desire to do the right thing.

If that’s an example of one of Thompson’s most successful changes in her adaptation, she also unerringly identifies the things it’s most important to keep. Just like the novel, the film places the warmth of the sisters’ relationship at its heart. Helped by the natural chemistry and ease between Thompson and Winslet, the film carefully contrasts the personalities of these two sisters (one sensible and reserved, the other spontaneous and passionate) but takes no sides and also shows the sisters themselves are united by their love for each other. The film frequently features scenes of confidence and intimacy between the two, and continually brings us back to each other as the key relationship in their lives. It also shows how both need to meet in the middle ground: Elinor needs some of Marianne’s sensibility, just as Marianne needs to take on some of Elinor’s sense.

Although sense would not have necessarily helped Marianne uncover the dangerous selfishness of Willoughby. Perhaps the only wrong call in the BBC Pride and Prejudice (like most adaptations of that novel), is that it makes the rogueish Wickham insufficiently handsome and too blatantly smarmy from the start, tipping the audience the wink that this man can’t be trusted. Not so here, with Greg Wise giving Willoughby so much charm, regency handsomeness, dash and warmth that you would not imagine for a moment he could be anything but what he seems. He makes a clear contrast with Marianne’s other suitor, the older, more distant Brandon – superbly played by Alan Rickman – whose qualities of kindness and decency are hidden behind his coolness and lack of flash (Rickman is, again, wonderful here as a man hoping against hope for  a second chance at love).

But then the film is filled with perfectly cast actors. Thompson is a brilliant and natural fit for Elinor (even if she is too old for the part, something she acknowledged herself) giving her acres of emotional torment under an exterior she must keep calm and controlled for the sake of her family. Winslet became a star for her enchantingly free-spirited performance, grounded by a warmth and desire for the best for others that keeps the character from ever becoming irritating or overbearing.

Among the rest, there isn’t a bum note. Walter is hilarious as the washpish Fanny, Hardy full of bonhomie as Sir John. Elizabeth Spriggs is perfect as a gossipy old maid who is a pillar of strength when her friends are ill-treated. Hugh Laurie is hilarious in a gift of a part as the dry, cynical Mr Palmer whose nearly every line is laugh-out-loud funny, but who also proves his nobility in a crisis. Staunton is equally good as his flighty, mismatched wife. Imogen Stubbs brings out the simpering manipulative scheming of Lucy Steele perfectly.

The whole is bought together expertly by wonderfully paced and constructed directing by Ang Lee, whom it’s surprisingly easy to over-look. Lee was a considered an odd choice for the film – he barely spoke English at the time and was a stranger to Austen. But the film is an inspired match for him, tapping into his sensitivity, the warm eye he brings to families and their dramas, and also the observer’s wit he brings to social comedy and dynamics. Lee also brings an outsider’s eye to England – it’s a film that looks wonderful, but not simply romantic, with Lee not afraid of a stormy sky or a muddy street. Interiors are shot with a candlelit beauty, and there is a sense throughout of all this taking place in a real world. Patrick Doyle’s perfectly judged score also works wonders to help create the mood.

Sense and Sensibility is a masterful film and a, perfect adaptation of Austen. It’s hard to imagine that it will be bettered for some time. Indeed, like the BBC Pride and Prejudice, it feels like it has made all other adaptations of the book redundant. With a brilliant adaptation, superb acting, sensitive and insightful direction and a true understanding of the spirit and heart of Austen, this is one of the greatest adaptations ever made.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

Harry and Voldemort prepare for their final showdown in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Jim Broadbent (Professor Slughorn), Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), John Hurt (Ollivander), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Emma Thompson (Professor Trelawney), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Ciarán Hinds (Aberforth Dumbledore), George Harris (Kingsley Shacklebolt), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Kelly MacDonald (Rowena Ravenclaw), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout), Geraldine Somerville (Lily Potter), Adrian Rawlins (James Potter), Warwick Davis (Griphook/Professor Flitwick), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), James Phelps (Fred Weasley), Oliver Phelps (George Weasley), Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley), Clémence Poésy (Fleur Delacour), Guy Henry (Pius Thicknesse), Nick Moran (Scabior), Natalie Tena (Tonks)

And so here we are. After 19 hours and 40 minutes, the Harry Potter franchise draws to a close in the rubble of Hogwarts. The franchise goes out swinging for some big hits – and it misses some of them – but at least it’s trying. If this turns out to be one of the least satisfying films in the franchise (at best the 6th best Harry Potter film), it’s not because they haven’t thrown anything at it.

The film adapts just under the last half of JK Rowling’s final novel. In an interesting structural twist, it actually ends up covering just over one day of time: between our heroes breaking into Gringotts Bank and the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, less than 24 hours has taken place. Nothing is really made of this in the film, but it’s an interesting thought. In fact Yates’ film is full of interesting half-thoughts that never go anywhere. More than any other film in the series, this is one where it is essential you’ve read the book before viewing it. Without the book you don’t get any of the rich context for most of the events.

This all culminates, for me, in the way the film falls apart in the last 20 minutes or so. This final section of the film changes, or cuts, so much of the book’s thematic depth, so many of its plot strands and explanations, that every time I see it I feel my disappointment starting to rise. I don’t want to be the guy who says “just shoot the book” – but if any film could have stuck with the book it’s this one. Why did they cut and change so much of this stuff? Did they really think, after almost 11 years and 20 hours of screen time, we wouldn’t have the patience for some of the more complex things from the book? Did they really feel that they had to stamp their own distinctive vision on it? Anyway, here are the things that always annoy me about this film:

1. Dumbledore’s backstory gets forgotten

Okay this is a minor one – and the film does leave some hints in. But for GOODNESS’ SAKE, they cut this book into two films, spent ages in the first film talking about the mysteries of Dumbledore’s dark past, then just as we meet Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth (a neat turn from Ciarán Hinds) and are about to get an explanation, Harry basically says words to the effect of “I’m not worrying about that. And neither should you folks. On with the film”.  

Even the Ghost of Dumbledore doesn’t get to explain any of this stuff. All the careful mood build of Part 1 is just thrown away. The book is about learning about death, the futility of the search for power, and humility. Dumbledore’s backstory of failed ambition is a massive part of this – and it gets dropped. It’s not like we didn’t have time in a series that has churned out films pushing up to three hours in length. I mean why put all that stuff in the first film, if you aren’t even going to reference it at all in the second film?

2. The Deathly Hallows get benched

Again wouldn’t be quite so bad if we hadn’t spent a huge amount of time in the first film talking about them – but are the words Deathly Hallows even mentioned here? Instead, just like Voldemort, the film is seduced by the elder wand, focusing everything on the ownership of this MacGuffin. The point of the book is that all this stuff is a chimera –and that the real point is learning that death should not be feared but accepted at the proper time. 

As it is, this never gets built on – and the importance of the resurrection stone (including why it tempted Dumbledore so much) never gets explained. Rather it just comes down to who controls the powerful thing, with none of Rowling’s richer themes.

Harry ends up controlling all three here but we never really get the sense of Harry controlling them all, or understand his decision to throw away the stone, or his realisation that death is not to be feared but accepted.

3. Neville gets blown away

Gotta feel sorry for Matthew Lewis (who is very good here). Reading the book he must have been thrilled: “So I pull the sword out of the sorting hat and then in one move cut the head off the snake like a total bad ass”. This should have been a great moment (it’s an iconic one from the book). Instead Neville gets blasted and, presumably to give them something to do, Ron and Hermione spend ages trying to kill the snake (intercut with Harry and Voldemort fighting) until finally Neville gets to lop that head off – by which point the moment has well and truly passed.

 4. No one mentions Voldemort keeps making the same mistakes

In the book, Harry has a beautiful moment where he basically tells our Tom that he’s made the same mistakes over and over again. Namely that, by killing Harry, who sacrificed himself for love, he made exactly the same mistake as he did with Harry’s mother and now cannot harm any of those Harry died for (i.e. the rest of the cast). It’s a great moment, where finally Harry understands what the novels have been building towards. Doesn’t merit a mention.

Neither does Voldemort’s childish obsession with famous things – he is consumed with belief in the power of a wand, he can’t let go of associating his horcruxes with famous things and the lineage of iconic wizards, etc. etc. Voldemort is basically a big, silly, empathy-free, sulky teenager – the film misses this point entirely.

Instead of explanations and depth, the film reduces Harry and Voldemort’s final clashes into dull punchy-bashy stuff. The director clearly fell in love with the visual idea of Harry and Voldemort’s heads merging together while apparating. This is a visual image that I hate because it (a) feels like showing off and (b) would only work if they were semi-reflections of each other – which they certainly aren’t. They are polar opposites. It’s a flashy effect that actually makes no thematic sense what-so-bloody-ever.

5. Voldemort goes out like a 3D special effect

Perhaps not a surprise in a film, but Voldemort gets killed and disintegrates into a huge puff of 3D-film smoke. I hate this. I hate it. I really, really, really hate it. I’ll tell you why:

  • The spells used in the duel are really unclear – it’s a great moment in the book that Voldemort’s killing curse rebounds against Harry’s disarming curse – instead we get the bright lights.
  • Voldemort dreads death more than anything – and Rowling’s writing of his body falling dead to the ground like any other normal dead guy taps exactly into what Voldemort spent his whole life struggling against. It’s a beautiful irony.
  • No one knew if Voldemort was dead or not the first time because he disappeared. In the book he is killed, by his own curse, in front of everyone and his body is left behind for everyone to look at and say “yup. Guy is dead”. Not here. Here he blows up in a puff of smoke in front of no witnesses. Did Harry just head back into the great hall and say “Okay guys. Take my word for it. He’s dead. He just is. Trust me on this. It’s not like last time. Totally dead. Promise.”

Wow. Okay that’s not really a review is it? That’s just like a disappointed fan whining “I don’t like it because it is different”. But my point isn’t that this is bad because it’s different. It’s bad because it takes stuff from the original and changes it AND NOT FOR THE BETTER. Moments that worked beautifully, or carried so much weight in the original are bastardised crudely for no clear reason.

As I say, after almost 18 hours and a life time (for many viewers) of growing up with these characters: surely we could have given the film a bit more time and allowed some actual intelligent context from the books to creep in? Surely we had the patience for Harry getting to point out to Voldemort how wrong he is? Everyone in the audience was ready for that right? If there was one film people were probably willing to dedicate three hours of their life too, in order to see it done properly it was this one, right? Rather than rushed by in a little over two?

But no this film goes always, always, always for the big spectacle. Not that this always work: Yates doesn’t shoot the battle hugely well. Aside from one excellent sequence which shows our three heroes trying to get across the castle courtyard, while chaos rages around them (beautifully scored as well), the battle is unclear, dingy and not hugely exciting. Again, I’d have liked to have had a bit more of this – to get some moments with this huge cast doing stuff in the battle (especially since they are ALL back – kudos to the producers there).

It’s a real, real shame because honestly parts of this movie are really, really, really good. Tom Felton is cracking again as Draco – and the film gives real development time to showing the impact all this has on the Malfoy family with genuine empathy. The break-in at Gringotts is exciting and fun – as well as giving Warwick Davies his best moment in the series as two-faced Griphook. Inventions and flourishes, such as Harry having visions of an enraged Voldemort slaughtering the staff of Gringotts in fury, are chilling.

Some moments of the book are carried across really well, in particular Snape’s escape – a powerfully filmed sequence of bravery from the pupils, and some great work from Maggie Smith. Yates really understands how to get moments of magic to work: the creation of the shield around Hogwarts is totally spine-tingling. When the film sits and breathes it generally gets it right. Fiennes is terrific still as Voldemort, serpentine, arrogant, unsettling. He gets some lovely moments here – from fury, to pained fear (as horcruxes bite the dust) to an almost-funny-awkward-mateyness as he tries to seduce Hogwarts pupils to his side (his awkward hug of Draco is terrific).

The three leads are of course great. Daniel Radcliffe could certainly have delivered the more complex moments of the book if he had been given the chance. He even does his best to sell the slightly awkward coda “19 years later”: a controversial sequence, it makes a great footnote in the book but it was always going to be a tough ask to make three teenagers look like 40 year olds convincingly, particularly when we are nearly as familiar with their faces as our own.

There are some troubling and failed moments in this film, stuff that doesn’t work. But then there is this:

Oh wow. For all that the film changes stuff from the books for the worst – this is a moment it unquestionably does better. And a massive, massive part of this has to be down to Alan Rickman. Rickman was told this backstory from the start of the films – and he delivers it with a passionate commitment here. Helped by brilliant score, and fascinating re-editing of moments from previous films seen from new angles, Rickman delivers the reveal of Snape’s heartbreaking moments perfectly.

Was I tired? Was it the added impact of Rickman’s own depth? I don’t know but I shed tears watching this again. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful piece of film making. Everything in it works perfectly: directing, writing, music, editing, filming and above all the acting. It’s just sublime. For all the film misses the point elsewhere it finally totally gets it here. I would take this moment over dozens of moments of Harry and Voldemort fighting each other.

And yes this Harry Potter film might miss the point, and it might bungle the ending, and it might well fail to carry across the richness and intricate plot explanations of Rowling’s original. Yes it gets bogged down in “who controls this wand” and yes it misses the point completely about the film being about learning to overcome a fear of death and defeat (something Voldemort totally fails to do) but then it has moments where it works wonderfully like this. 

But in these films we got a beautiful franchise, with some excellent films. It’s always going to reward constant viewing. And it will always move the viewer. And it’s always going to be great.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

Harry and friends are on the run in the excellent Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley), John Hurt (Mr Ollivander), Rhys Ifans (Xenophilius Lovegood), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Bill Nighy (Rufus Scrimgeour), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petunia Dursley), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Toby Jones (Dobby), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Peter Mullan (Yaxley), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), George Harris (Kingsley Shacklebolt), Clémence Poésy (Fleur Delacour), Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley), Warwick Davies (Griphook), Nick Moran (Scabior), Guy Henry (Pius Thicknesse), David O’Hara (Albert Runcorn), Sophie Thompson (Malfada Hopkirk), Steffan Rhodri (Reg Cattermole), Simon McBurney (Kreacher)

The final book of the Harry Potter series made its own slice of film history: it was the first time a book was adapted in two films to “get the whole story of the book across” (or to make double the box office cash – take your pick). There was scepticism about creating a film about the first half (or so) of The Deathly Hallows, as a large chunk revolves around our heroes walking around the countryside, confused, lost and adrift. Instead, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 turns this material into one of the richest, most engaging and best films in the series. Any film that expands a throw-away reference from the books to Hermione removing her parents memories of her, into an affecting opening scene showing Emma Watson doing the same is really inventively playing with the original source material.

David Yates takes on his third Harry Potter film – and this is possibly the best he filmed. In fact, the whole film feels fresher and different – perhaps because it’s the only film to not have a single scene at Hogwarts. Instead our characters are out in the forest and on the run – and the film has completely different vibe, immediately lending it a uniqueness. Equally, it isn’t shy about pointing out our heroes are all-at-sea. Harry doesn’t really know what he is doing, or where to start with his self-imposed quest: and surely when Ron angrily asks why Dumbledore didn’t tell him more (or if Harry wasn’t even listening properly) he’s voicing some of the questions of the audience.

This film, more than any other, focuses on the relationship between the leading three characters. While getting an idea of their friendship and loyalty to each other, we also get a sense of the tensions and envy between them. Not least in Ron’s grudging acceptance that he is the number two. Rupert Grint has been slowly building under David Yates’ films from a comic relief character to an increasing (slightly surly) teenage insecurity and troubled sexual maturity. 

This really pays off in this film: Ron is bitter and jealous. These feelings might be exacerbated by the necklace the characters must take turns wearing, but it’s just bringing to the surface Ron’s darker feelings of inadequacy: and Yates even brings them to the screen in a necklace-induced vision of a naked (but artfully concealed in smoke!) Harry and Hermione alternately making out and rubbishing Ron. It’s a plot point that covers Ron overcoming his resentment and cementing his position in the gang. It’s very well done – and Rupert Grint is very good.

Equally good is the gently sad, mutually affectionate relationship between Harry and Hermione. Alone together for large chunks of the film, the characters’ bond is firmly established, the chemistry between the two actors never clearer. The film plays with the subplot it’s been suggesting for a while of a potential deeper relationship between Harry and Hermione: not least in its beautiful silent dancing sequence to Nick Cave in the tent (one of the best ever entirely invented scenes in the series) that is friendly, but with a hint of the possibility of something more – something the characters seem to consciously decide to bench. This sort of emotional reality is what makes the film really stand out. It turns the “camping trip” of the novel into something more profound and engrossing – I’d say this is the only sequence that really outdoes the books altogether in the entire series.

But of course there is still plenty of action, and humour, a highpoint for both being our heroes infiltrating the Ministry of Magic, disguised as ministry employees. Playing the adult disguises of our heroes brings out three hilarious and sharply observed physical performances from David O’Hara, Steffan Rhodri and Sophie Thompson. In fact, the film has a bit of a thing for disguises, from a disfigured Harry (who may or may not be recognised by Draco, in another piece of excellent acting from Tom Felton as a terminally out-of-his depth and terrified Malfoy), to the opening scenes featuring half the cast being disguised as Harry. Daniel Radcliffe excels in this sequence, playing versions of most of the young cast with real wit and skill.

Yates allows a creeping sense of imminent danger to hang over the whole picture, straight from the off. A “conference of baddies” at Malfoy manor shows us Voldemort (the ever sinister Ralph Fiennes) re-establishing his murderous villainy from the start – and also belittling and mocking poor Lucius Malfoy (a crushed Jason Isaacs). From there, via a gripping escape from Harry’s home, to a wedding scene that quickly collapses into a terrifying attack from Death Eaters, it’s a film full of excitement.

Yates shoots this with tension and edge. A sequence with Harry and company fleeing through the forest from snatchers is so well-done, so intense and immersive, that they used it for the poster. This sequence uses really interesting camera work and tracking shots – in fact the whole film is very well filmed and extremely well-paced. It’s also got an eye for the real nastiness of regimes like Voldemort’s: people like Umbridge (an increasingly Himmlerish Imelda Staunton) flourish, while bullying thugs like Yaxley (an intimidatingly excellent Peter Mullan) rule the roost.

Kloves script sets up a lot of the fascinating back-story from the novel, not only around Dumbledore but also the Deathly Hallows themselves (I’ll not mention for now that most of this build-up is fumbled in the last film). There is a beautiful animation sequence establishing the history of the Deathly Hallows, which is an artistic highlight. The slow unveiling and revealing of facts is wonderfully done – and rewards the patient viewer.

The film culminates in a final sequence at Malfoy manor that carries a great wallop of emotional torment and dread (first torture scene in a Potter movie for those interested…). Surprisingly a lot of this emotional force comes from Dobby the elf – irritating as he was in Chamber of Secrets, here he gets a few scenes that carry real emotional force. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is possibly the only Harry Potter film that is an actual improvement on its original source material (there I said it). I think it’s a brilliant film, a film which carries real emotional weight and has genuine things to say, not just about good and evil, but also about the sort of teenage angst and yearnings we’ve all had. The three leads are all excellent, and there is barely a bum note in the whole thing.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Harry and Dumbledore prepare for war in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Jim Broadbent (Horace Slughorn), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Natalia Tena (Tonks), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is perhaps the least stand-alone of the Harry Potter novels. Intended as a bridge into the final book (and carrying a lot of mystery), for obvious reasons it also has no Dumbledore-explains-the-plot-to-Harry chapter at the end (making it unique in the series). It also has the series’ least interesting MacGuffin – the identity of the Half-Blood Princehimself being considered of such little note here that it barely gets a mention in the film. But despite all this, the highly experienced Harry Potter crew deliver another exciting, dramatic and fully engaging film.

While I may not have thought David Yates was a natural film director, I have to say in this film his cinematic craft has really kicked into gear. There are images of fascinating depth and beauty here, and the film is beautifully shot by Bruno Delbonnel (Oscar-nominated). Like never before, Hogwarts seems like a place of inky greens and deep soulful shadows. The camera often allows characters’ faces to fill the middle of the frame, while still giving us depth of vision of the world around them. Carefully composed shots show the rich detail of plenty of objects, from dead birds to photographs. It’s a luscious film.

It also has a sad nostalgia to it: it feels like it’s about things coming to an end. Unlike any other film in the series, there are very few scenes of hi-jinks in Hogwarts. Comic relief characters like Neville and Hagrid are noticeable by their (mostly) absence. 

Instead the film looks at that sad half-way house between being a child and an adult. Or rather, the responsibilities and duties of an adult being thrust onto a child. Obviously Harry is scarcely ready to take on his mantle of chosen one – and feels bereft and lonely. But, in a neat contrast, Draco Malfoy is also being pushed into a task he is far too young for, and ill-suited to. The film could have actually made more of pulling out the contrasts between these two characters – although time is always at a premium in these films, with so much of Rowling’s plot to squeeze in.

Despite this, Tom Felton gives his finest performance in the series as a tortured and deeply scared Draco Malfoy, who for the first time seems like just a normal, insecure boy terrified of the dark acts he feels he has to do. The film gets a lot of emotional mileage out of this (more than it does, actually, from Harry’s predicaments) and Felton’s expressive agony and tearful lack of control for the first time make him someone we can relate to, and feel sorry for.

It also brings out different character traits in other characters, not least the protective side of Snape. Alan Rickman gets one of his meatiest roles in the series here, wonderfully playing multiple different emotions and motivations under a cold inscrutable surface. His character is a constantly intriguing shift of feelings – but it’s clear he does, in his way, care for Draco’s safety (just as he does for the other children in his care). Rickman also gives a brilliant sense of Snape’s moral uncertainty, and his every look suggest waves of emotion under tight control. It’s a wonderful performance of suggesting a lot under the surface while not doing a lot. Not to mention Rickman also manages to skilfully leave everything open for debate as to Snape’s true motives.

It’s striking how many of the series regulars come into prominence here. Not just Felton and Rickman, but this is also Gambon’s finest performance. By now Gambon had pretty much nailed Dumbledore, giving the part a great deal of compassion and quiet moral force. His sad urging for Draco to ask for his help near the end of the film is rather moving, as are the soft, sad tones Gambon drops throughout the film suggesting Dumbledore’s pain and guilt. Gambon gets a perfect balance between a twinkly charm and a quiet authoritativeness that works wonderfully.

Surprisingly however, what works less well is Harry’s plotline. Daniel Radcliffe is underpowered and slightly underwhelming, a little too sullen and sulky to really win our sympathy (Radcliffe himself has named this as his least favourite performance). It doesn’t help either that there is no chemistry between him and Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley. Wright, bless her, is not a strong actor and she constantly undersells each of these scenes – unable to bring the sort of bright, sexy playfulness her book equivalent has. Instead both she and Radcliffe feel sulky and awkward, and the romantic scenes between them (of which there are many) fall flat time and time again. Once you notice this total lack of spark between them you can’t see anything else!

Radcliffe has far more chemistry with Emma Watson – but she and Rupert Grint (along with many of the rest of the younger cast) have very little of any real consequence to do. The dysfunctional middle of the film, with Radcliffe and Wright flirting, drifts all the time, meaning the focus of the film zeroes in on the “adult-character” plots. Yates and screenwriter Steven Kloves do their best to add drama and excitement to a book where most of the dramatic high points are Dumbledore and Harry either watching memories, or Harry using a book to do much better at potions.

And by and large they succeed. Action sequences are added: the opening attack on the Millennium Bridge by Death Eaters is terrific, and there is an exciting (if totally plot free) attack by Death Eaters on the Weasley home. Yates again sells the moments of awe: there are some beautiful shots in Voldemort’s cave hideaway, and once again he makes Dumbledore’s power a true jaw-hits-the-floor moment. 

Half Blood Prince is beautifully filmed and well directed, even if one of its primary sub-plots doesn’t really work. There are some terrific performances: Felton, Rickman and Gambon possibly do their best work here, while Jim Broadbent is wonderfully funny but also touchingly sad and rumpled as Slughorn. It’s not Radcliffe’s finest hour, but it’s a film that works very well as an entrée to the series’ final arc. And it really captures a sense of morose sadness, mourning and regret wonderfully effectively – the final sequences carry real emotional weight. It’s a fine film – and one of Rowling’s favourites as it turns out.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Harry Potter and friends prepare to face the Dark Lord in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eyed Moody), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerve McGonagall), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Emma Thompson (Sybill Trelawney), Julie Walters (Mrs Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Katie Leung (Cho Chang), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Natalie Tena (Tonks), George Harris (Kingsley Shacklebolt)

By the fifth film, the Harry Potter franchise was really on a roll – and a lot of the core creative team that would carry the series through to the final film were in place. It’s particularly striking how much a distinctive look and tone the series now had, that is both different from the books and a logical extension of them. It’s also the film where I think the series finally decided it would tell it’s own version of Rowling’s story, rather than an exact staging. 

Rather than simply tightening the plot of Rowling’s mammoth book, Order of the Phoenix decided to rework the story to deliver what it wanted to do. Vast amounts of Hogwarts material is ruthlessly cut, including large sections of Ron and Hermione’s sub-plots. The film streamlines the story, reducing Harry’s feelings of isolation in the story (the film instead centres the importance of friendship and loyalty). And despite turning one of the longest books in the series into the shortest film, this captures the sense of the book excellently. It clearly identifies the key themes that drive Rowling’s series and runs with these very effectively. This film, more than any others so far, shows the deep bonds of loyalty that connect not just the central trio, but also the other members of the school. The Dumbledore’s Army sequences have a wonderful sense of camaraderie about them – these people genuinely feel like a group of friends.

These sequences also give Daniel Radcliffe some great material to play with. Harry clearly would make a hell of a teacher – Radcliffe makes him encouraging and supportive, capable of drawing the best out of his students. Radcliffe does his expected excellent job all the way through this film. His ability to play scenes of grief and longing has increased dramatically – his reaction to the death of Sirius Black is really well done. But he also presents Harry as essentially a warm and caring person – exactly the polar opposite of the man Voldemort has become. It’s another terrific performance.

Order of the Phoenix was David Yates’ first film as a director of the series – Yates has gone on to direct all the subsequent outings in the Potterverse – and part of the reason he seems to have cemented the role is that he gives a perfect mixture of Columbus, Cuarón and Newell. He can juggle elements of Rowling’s story, he works very well with actors, he has enough creativity and vision as a director to present this world in interesting new ways. He’s a perfect combination of a number of skills from the previous directors – and he really runs with that legacy here.

Order of the Phoenix is a dark and gorgeously shot movie, with a tight story structure (it’s the only film not written by Steven Kloves, and Michael Goldenberg’s fresh take on the film I think really helps). Every scene has a painterly brilliance, and scenes simmer with tension and paranoia – Yates doesn’t lose track of the fact that Harry is being persecuted by the authorities for taking an unpopular stance on Voldemort’s return. 

Yates establishes his intention to turn this into a notably darker episode from the very start, opening with a vicious Dementor attack (redesigned to make them more fluid). This is followed quickly by a show trial at the Ministry. Then to a darker, gloomier Hogwarts now a den of unjust rules (the expulsion of Thompson’s gentle Sybil Trelawney is a particular fine heartstring-tugging moment), and cruel punishments. It’s a film that never allows us to forget death has entered Harry’s world. By the time we hit the final battle sequences in the Ministry of Magic, we know our heroes are putting their lives on the line. Scary as this is, we also appreciate the bonds of love that have taken them there all the more.

A lot of the creep and cruelty of the film emerge from Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge. Staunton is brilliantly cast as the twee ministry official who hides a ruthless viciousness, buttressed by a sociopathic conviction that whatever she does must be right. Staunton’s soft politeness is the perfect vehicle for showing Umbridge’s sadistic cruelty. Umbridge is the worst form of politician –blindly following the orders of any authority figure who can promote her on their coat-tails. The design of her character is similarly spot-on: she dresses almost exclusively in fluffy pink knitted suits, and her office is an explosion of pink, china plates and fluffy animal pictures. Staunton is almost unbelievably vile in her smug, condescending moral emptiness.

It’s further evidence of what a brilliant job this series did with casting. By this point, truly great actors were appearing in this film while sharing less than a dozen lines between them: Thewlis, Gleeson, Smith, Thompson and even Coltrane get remarkably little do in this film, but still seize your attention. Wonderful performances also come from the less famous names: George Harris gives a brilliant twinkly wisdom and gravity to Kingsley Shacklebolt while Robert Hardy (quietly excellent in the previous films) gets some more material to showcase his skills as the wilfully blind Fudge.

Of the other stand-outs, Helena Bonham Carter is brilliantly malevolent as the psychotic Bellatrix. Jason Isaacs gets some marvellous moments of smooth patrician wickedness as Malfoy. Gary Oldman is the ideal roguish father-figure as Sirius, the actor’s obvious bond with Radcliffe really coming across. Gambon is very comfortable now as Dumbledore, really showing the authority behind his Dumbledore’s eccentricity.

Then you have actors who dominate from mere minutes of screen-time. Fiennes again delivers in a short scene at the close of the picture. And then of course we get Rickman: he makes so much of such brief moments as Snape. He has probably the two biggest laugh-out-loud moments (both totally reliant on his delivery of non-descript words like “Obviously”). His occlumency classes with Harry showcase him at his best: trying to help, but unable to overcome his essential bitterness and resentment. These sequences are wonderfully contrasted with Harry’s comfort as a teacher to his friends: by contrast Snape is dismissive, impatient and unsympathetic.

The film finds moments of humanity and comedy throughout. Rupert Grint finally gets to show another side of Ron, as Ron matures slightly into a loyal wing-man , who makes it clear he will not countenance criticism of Harry in his hearing. And while this is a dark film, it’s also the one that deals with Harry’s growing romantic feelings for Cho – and he gets a beautifully played little romance that reminds us that Harry is (at the end of the day) still a nervous kid. It’s a film that understands friendship and love and their importance.

So it’s why the final battle sequence in the Ministry of Magic works so well. Tense and dangerous, we also root overwhelmingly for the courage of the kids. The work Yates had done on the wizard battles really pays off – they have a greater sense of choreography than ever before, while the apparating (in a trailing, misty, fast-moving cloud) really adds a fantastic visual element. Little shots work so well – I love the cut from Harry fighting alongside Sirius to his friends crouching behind a rock staring up at their friend in awe. It’s a beautiful reminder that what Harry is doing is so brave.

Of course, the film ends in the series’ first truly gripping wizard fight as we finally get Dumbledore taking on Voldemort. It was a great sequence in the book – and is translated wonderfully to the screen with a series of gripping visuals. There are brilliant beats throughout and we learn about the characters. We see Voldemort’s targeting of the defenceless Harry throughout, the way Dumbledore puts himself in the way of danger (including angrily throwing Harry backwards with magic when he steps forward). Above all you see Harry’s own courage (and his impulsiveness motivated by caring so much).

Order of the Phoenix is another excellent entry into a series that flourished and became richer the longer it went on. Yates showed that he was in tune with the fundamental ideas of Rowling’s writing and that he was able to marry excellent performances with impressive visuals. It’s brilliantly made – shot wonderfully, very well edited with a marvellous score – and is an impressive and muscular piece of film making. Very impressive.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Our heroes face an increasingly dark future in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Brendan Gleeson (“Mad-Eye” Moody), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Miranda Richardson (Rita Skeeter), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), Frances de la Tour (Madame Maxime), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Robert Pattinson (Cedric Diggory), David Tennant (Barty Crouch Jnr), Jeff Rawle (Amos Diggory), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Roger Lloyd Pack (Barty Crouch), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Clémence Poésy (Fleur Delacour)

After Alfonso Cuarón announced he would only direct one Harry Potter film, the producers faced a stiff challenge. The third Harry Potter film had been the best so far, and elevated both the acting and design into a far more filmic, epic position than before. Could Mike Newell match this in Goblet of Fire? Sure he could.

If nothing else, Goblet of Fire is a triumph of adaptation. Used to the page-to-screen translations of the earlier films, it was expected that the film would be split into two parts. Instead Newell and screen-writer Steven Kloves turned Rowling’s huge fourth book into a tightly structured and focused film that places Harry’s emotional journey firmly at its centre, and includes only the things that support the building of that story. 

Goblet of Fire is a film of fascinating contrasts. In fact, it’s probably the lightest, most ‘teenage’ of the films, while also containing a dark final chapter and more death than we’ve had so far in the series. But this film is actually rather funny and allows its characters to focus on the challenges and stresses of growing up, with only a few flashes of danger and darkness – before they get wrapped up in the battle against Voldemort that will dominate the next few films.

So this is the film where we get crushes, where Harry and Ron struggle to get dates for the ball, where we get a sense of Hermione not only growing up – but growing in confidence. Harry develops a hopeless crush on Cho Chang – his “Willyougotoballwithme” hurried date proposal is all too familiar to most men, as is his “oh no never mind not a problem” when she (reluctantly) says no. Meanwhile, Ron struggles to understand his own hormonal feelings towards Hermione. It’s all well done and very funny. The ball itself is a highlight of teenage awkwardness, as well as genuinely feeling like a teenage party (including a sort of wizarding mosh pit). 

This teenage awkwardness carries across into Harry’s involvement in the Tri-wizard Tournament, a series of stirring set-pieces against dragons, mer-people and a wicked ever-shifting maze. The tournament offers a range of puzzles Harry needs to solve – more than enough opportunity to allow other characters to get involved. Neville Longbottom particularly moves to the fore for the first time – not only embracing dancing (hilariously nearly every boy is as embarrassed by it as you might expect) and landing a date, but also using his knowledge of plants to help Harry, and we get increased insight into his own tragic backstory. It’s great to see Matthew Lewis being able to stretch himself – and show the roots of the good young actor he’s become.

The film spends a lot of time on family roots, both tragic and happy, in particular fathers and sons. We have no fewer than four father/son match-ups in these films, and each gives us a slightly different perspective on family relationships. Mark Williams’ matey but loving Arthur Weasley gets more screen time than ever before, and Williams develops him into a protective but warm patriarch. Contrast that with the troubled coldness the Crouches show each other – and the swift speed with which Barty Crouch denounces his own son. We get a glimpse of the sort of father Harry could have had with a brief ghost appearance of Harry’s parents. The strongest father-and-son relationship we get to see is that between the Diggorys, an immeasurably proud father and a perfect son.

Mentioning Amos Diggory means we have to bring up one of the most extraordinary acting cameos in the entire series: Jeff Rawle’s work here is brilliant. Is there a more moving moment in the franchise than his uncontrollable grief when Cedric is killed? His anguished crying of “That’s my boy” will haunt many a viewer for years to come. It’s a measure of the brilliance Mike Newell had with actors, and the shrewdness of the casting throughout. Would anyone else have thought of George Dent from Drop the Dead Donkey for this King Lear-like cameo? Would anyone else have thought of Trigger as strict disciplinarian, Barty Crouch (Roger Lloyd-Pack is terrific). The film also shrewdly cast David Tennant about five minutes before he became one of the most popular actors in the country, for an excellent malevolent cameo of pride and bitterness.

The acting throughout is terrific – Mike Newell has the reputation of an actor’s director, and he really shows it here. The three leads are no longer children but teenagers, and they feel like it. Radcliffe plays Harry with increasing maturity and emotional depth, balancing with nuance and quiet confidence the light comedy of Harry’s hormonal yearnings, his fear during the tournament, and his terror and resolve during the confrontation with Voldemort. It’s quite a range he has to go through here, and this features his best performance so far.

Similarly, Grint increases his comedic range with a sullen, teenage I-don’t-want-to-admit-I’m-interested-in-girls series of exchanges. Watson demonstrates her obvious chemistry with both her co-stars, and also does a great job of showing Hermione’s growing emotional maturity and confidence. Many of the other regulars continue to do great work, with Gambon really settling into this role of Dumbledore (although his fury when Harry’s name emerges from the Tri-wizard cup seems strangely out of character). 

The new cast members as always offer plenty. Miranda Richardson delivers a lot of comic flourishes, and snappy media pot-stirring, as gossip columnist Rita Skeeter. Brendan Gleeson carries all the charisma you would expect as a maverick, perhaps even unbalanced Mad-Eyed Moody. In a further testament to the excellent casting directors here, Robert Pattinson (five minutes before his fame exploded) is very good as a suave, handsome, slightly cocky but charming Cedric Diggory.

The film though is building towards its surprising gear-change late in the story – and the introduction of Voldemort, murder and death into a film that until now has been an engaging and amusing action film and teenage comedy. Perfect casting for Voldemort was secured with Ralph Fiennes. Of course Fiennes could play Voldemort standing on his head, but his softly-spoken suaveness and patrician charm is absolutely perfect for the role. You really get a sense of ice running through his blood, and his cold cruelty and arrogance. Fiennes is pretty much iconic in this role. 

The final sequence itself is brilliantly done, a thrilling and terrifying sequence, which really hammers home the extent of Harry’s powerlessness and vulnerability – while the brutal, instant dispatching of Cedric immediately changes the ball game for the rest of the series. The scene is brilliantly shot with a series of blacks and greens for mood and offers a sensational conclusion, as well as an expertly shot duel between Harry and Voldemort that established the filmic language for all subsequent duels that were to come.

Goblet of Fire is another example after Prisoner of Azkaban of a great piece of franchise film-making. It’s not quite as stand-alone, or as perfectly dramatically formed, as the previous film – but that’s because this one ends, like none of the other films before, on a cliffhanger. For the first time, this series wasn’t offering an opponent and obstacle that could be overcome and left behind at the end of the film. Here the baddies win – and the feeling going forward is that, with the help of friends and family, we can battle the evil, but it will still be there. It’s an engaging, funny and very well-structured film, packed with decent twists, and ends with a humdinger of a scene in a film that has already had plenty of excellent moments. Harry Potter is surely one of the best franchises there is.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter friends confront wanted killer Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Julie Christie (Madam Rosmerta), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dusley), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petrunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Emma Thompson (Sybill Trewlawney), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Pam Ferris (Marge Dursley)

Well this is more like it. The first two films set the tone and established the universe. But Prisoner of Azkaban – filmed after a year’s break from the back-to-back filming of the first two films – is such a notable step-up in quality from the previous films, it completely stands alone as a marvellous piece of cinematic storytelling, not just as part of a franchise.

Why is this? Well I think the answer is pretty clear. After the solid, but unspectacular, direction from Chris Columbus, the reins were handed to a gifted filmmaker in Alfonso Cuarón. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has all the visual invention and dynamism the first two films lacked. Alongside that, Cuarón tells the story with a brilliant mixture of light and dark. For the first time, the adaptation also escaped the need to dramatise everything in the book onto the screen – this film is a good 20 minutes shorter than Chamber of Secrets but immeasurably superior.

Prisoner of Azkaban looks fantastically gorgeous, and is brilliantly shot. The production and costume design has been spruced up, to give the film a sort of steam-punk 1950s look, as if the wizarding world had slightly arrested a few decades behind the rest of the world. Cuarón was also one of the first directors in the series who seemed relaxed enough to let the children act like children – so we get scenes of them mucking around in the dormitory or dressed with a teenage coolness. Hogwarts becomes a castle of shadows and gloom, in a magical, wintry whiteness and Scottish Highlands shades of greens and blues. More than any of the previous films, its a world that feels ‘real’ and lived in. It’s a style that would dominate all the remaining films: Cuarón essentially set the tone for the rest of the series to come.

It also helps that Cuarón was blessed with perhaps the strongest of Rowling’s stand-alone stories, a tight and taut thriller that reaches a surprising conclusion and features playful use of things like time travel and illicit magic. Cuarón, however, really embraces the emotional core of that story, and allows all these characters to expand in richness and depth. Harry faces real torment and anger when confronted with the story of the death of his parents, and his desperate yearning to have some sort of connection with them is a key thread that runs through almost every scene.

The film highlights the growing flirtation and connection between Ron and Hermione. Hermione herself is increasingly shown as a level-headed, empathetic young woman, who really understands the feelings of her friends. Several other characters are allowed to show depths: don’t forget this is the film where we see Snape’s first reaction when confronted with a werewolf is to put himself between it and the children. Rickman, by the way, is brilliant in this film, giving us the first hints of the deep and abiding feelings Snape held for Harry’s mother in his bitter anger at Sirius.

As always the film introduces some fantastic new characters into the mix. Gary Oldman is simply superb as Sirius Black, bringing to life his torment and rage, but most especially Blacks warmth and generosity (as well as his boyish enthusiasm). It was a major change of pace for Oldman, who has credited the film with changing his image in Hollywood away from one-note villain. Emma Thompson is very funny as (possibly) delusional divination teacher Sybil Trelawney. David Thewlis though waltzes off with the movie as a sad-eyed Remus Lupin, a man who clearly has known great losses. Thewlis plays Lupin with a caring, scruffy charm, an ideal teacher and mentor – generous but also firm when needed. It’s impossible not to end the film caring deeply for him. He’s terrific – it’s a real shame he never got another real showpiece scene in the rest of the franchise.

This is also our first introduction to Michael Gambon as Dumbledore – a replacement for the late Richard Harris. Gambon plays the part with a curious twinkly cheekiness, and a greater physical robustness, along with a faint Irish twang which feels like a homage to Harris. It’s a slightly uncertain start, but Gambon’s unusual, slightly-faded-hippie take on the part stands out from Harris’ austere wise-man very nicely. His lightness makes the moments of power all the more awe-inspiring. It also rather fits in with the tone of Cuarón’s slightly off-beat style.

Cuarón has a real eye for the offbeat gag – from a cleaner almost being blown away by a monster’s howl in the Leaky Cauldron, to the kids eating animal sweets in their dormitory, to Dumbledore’s off-camera delay tactics with Fudge (“Well it is a very long name minister” he says when asked to sign something), there are many delightful sight and sound gags throughout the film to make it a joy to discover. His balance of this with the heart of the story is brilliant: the inflation of Pam Ferris’ vile Aunt Marge is both brilliantly funny, but also clearly motivated by the revolting things she openly says to Harry about his parents. It’s a great balance the film pulls off time and time again.

The film is wonderfully structured and beautifully paced. It’s got a very clear five act structure, and thematic thread running through the whole film of grief and needing friends to help cope with this. The parts of the book that don’t contribute to this have been skilfully trimmed down. Cuarón then brilliantly interweaves set-piece moments, many of them introduced with an off-the-wall inventiveness, such as the umbrella dancing in the wind before the storm-swept Quiddich match (is there any health and safety in this school at all by the way?).

By the time you hit the final sequences, thanks to the film’s structure, you’ve no doubt about the revolting dangers of the Dementors. These spectral creatures are returned to again and again by Cuarón’s careful editing, as we see them drifting around the borders of Hogwarts, killing flowers and freezing lakes by their very presence. These terrifying creatures are the creepy stuff of nightmares – and Cuarón doesn’t flinch from this. It also makes Harry’s successful conjuring of a Patronus at the film’s conclusion a stirring and triumphant moment, a suitable triumphal ending to the film.

Cuarón’s direction of this film re-set the table for the entire franchise. Both Mike Newell and David Yates would follow in his footsteps, and present the world as Cuarón imagined it: dark blacks, and muted primary colours, as much a world of creepy, unsettling threat and danger, as it was of delight and wonder. From this point on the films would start to stand on their own feet, focusing on exploring the themes and emotions of Rowling’s story, rather than covering every scene. Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the Harry Potter films and the most important landmark in the series. It’s not just a great Harry Potter film, or a great fantasy film or kids’ film. It’s a great film.