This is a deep dive into the minutia of Harry Potter, so spoilers for the entire series follow.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 represents something extraordinary, as it sticks the landing for an eight-film saga of consistent quality. As the series aged up with its viewers, the stories became heavier and all-out war ravaged the wizarding world. But the way the concluding film provides a fantasy action climax is fascinating. It’s pyrotechnic, it’s sweeping, but it also relies heavily on silence or near-muted action carried by visual storytelling. Sometimes words are passed over in favor of powerful images, and the unfolding drama tends to be grand but not particularly loud. There are sequences of great volume, don’t get me wrong, but they are used as emphatic punctuation rather than the norm, and this dynamism creates a unique feeling for this finale.
The opening sets the tone; Severus Snape as the aloof headmaster, with Dementors hovering over the formerly friendly confines of Hogwarts – silence to convey a brooding atmosphere. The infiltration of Gringotts is loaded with pregnant pauses – silence used for conventional tension. After Harry Potter’s watery vision of the Horcruxes, cut to Voldemort, and the sound noticeably cuts out – silence to convey shock or desperation. The Quidditch pitch is immolated as a muted afterthought. This blink-and-you-miss-it image efficiently communicates that this the days of the relatively freewheeling earlier films are gone – silence as swift visual storytelling.
In a poignantly quiet moment, married couple Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks reach out to each other at the outset of the battle, but can’t quite reach each other – silence to convey longing. It’s only in total silence in the Room of Requirement that Harry can hear the insidious whisper of the diadem Horcrux – silence offering clarity. When Voldemort arrives at the courtyard with Harry’s “corpse” in tow, the oppressively muggy atmosphere makes it feels like something out of Braveheart – silence as dread. And after the first wave of battle is over, Harry and his friends find the dead and wounded in a softly wrenching scene, all the more effective for being underplayed. Silence to break our hearts.
Backtracking a bit, pay particular attention to the first scene in the Great Hall (that hollowed out and forbidding room which used to host Technicolor feasts). We start in quiet, as Snape ultra-methodically asks for information as to Harry’s movements. He makes two words, “equally guilty”, feel like a complete sentence in and of themselves. Harry steps out and monologues, revealing that Snape killed former headmaster Albus Dumbledore. In Minerva McGonagall’s best moment of the film (better than Piertotum Locomotor), she hears this and immediately, without saying a word, attacks Snape and drives him out of the Hall. Loyalty to Dumbledore doesn’t need to be explained. Cue triumphant music (the main fanfare of the series, in fact), and the Hall’s fires are lit… for about three seconds. If the students thought Snape’s words were intimidating, Voldemort’s will learn them. Silence, scream. Silence, scream. And then the Dark Lord speaks. In contrast to the silence that has come before, his words are physically harmful to the listeners. After he’s done, we’re back into more straightforward narrative momentum. It’s an utterly dynamic scene, but more of an eerie dark ride than a roller coaster. And it all relies on carefully modulated silence and the briefest diversions into conventional conversation.
A big reason why director David Yates and his team of sound mixers are free to get more experimental is their faith in composer Alexandre Desplat. Desplat’s score for the film is extraordinary, whether it’s the mournful “Lily’s Theme”, the painful pathos of “Severus and Lily”, or the way in “The Grey Lady” cue that he turns Helena Ravenclaw’s tossed-off line that Harry reminds her of Tom Riddle a bit into a sweeping and crucial moment.
But the crown jewel of Desplat’s sonic tapestry is his elegiac “Courtyard Apocalypse” cue, which weaves the Battle of Hogwarts into a bleakly cohesive whole. As the diegetic sound is nearly muted and this theme dominates the soundscape, entire character arcs are paid off just with visuals. Aberforth Dumbledore steps out of the shadows to join his brother’s war. As Fenrir Greyback is eating Lavender Brown’s lifeless body, it has to be Hermione Granger whose outrage protects the dignity of Lavender’s corpse, given their romantic rivalry in Half-Blood Prince. Part of what motivates some of the visual storytelling is the need for storytelling economy, but it’s a great example of necessity breeding invention.
It’s all the more striking that silence plays such a key role in the film, given that Steve Kloves’ screenplay must acrobatically jump through hoops to juggle three Deathly Hallows, the explanation of who has mastery over the Elder Wand, four Horcruxes, and four ways to destroy each Horcrux. This is not to mention the Prince’s Tale sequence, which must convey a huge amount of information all while putting the emotion of it first. There are so many McGuffins in play that the screenplay actually does get in a tangle of exposition with regard to the number of Horcruxes. Harry states, “The last one’s in the castle”, referring to the diadem. Then he says, “Nagini is the last Horcrux”. Then, of course, it turns out that Harry himself is the last one. But in the end this inconsistency is forgiven because of the artistry on display.
And what considerable artistry. The film would be striking enough just on a visual level, but as it caps an eight-film fantasy series, it takes an exhilaratingly unconventional approach to delivering a climax. Contemplative conversations are followed by long stretches without dialogue, with bursts of noise popping on screen all the more due to the build-up. The death of Voldemort plays out not with a bang, but as a silent unraveling. Transformers: Dark of the Moon was nominated for the Best Sound Mixing award at the 2012 Oscars, while Harry Potter was nowhere to be found… there are no words. At a crucial but low-key emotional moment toward the end of the film, Albus Dumbledore says that he believes “words are our most inexhaustible source of magic”. Indeed, but as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 shows us, true greatness can also be found in the magical spaces between words.
Luminary director Martin Scorsese broke new personal ground on two counts with Hugo; it was his first family film, and his first foray into the use of 3D. It is fitting that in the light of these signs of cinematic change that Hugo is largely a love letter to film. And it is an intoxicating one.
The titular character is orphaned tinker Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who maintains the clocks of the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris. As he attempts to fix a clockwork automaton, he must avoid the overcompensatory policing of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Inspector, and inadvertently uncovers a mystery tied to the earliest days of cinema.
Most of the second act of the film, in fact, is devoted to the latter concept, gently obsessing with pre-Great War cinema. Many vintage works are alluded to, everything from The Great Train Robbery to Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (a particular thrill for me) to Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune. There is also an undercurrent of sadness regarding lost art, as some film’s celluloid was melted down and repurposed. That anxiety will be familiar to any Doctor Who fan mourning the loss of 97 episodes. This part of this film is all great fun to watch, but it also leads to my biggest criticism of the film: John Logan’s script hits its themes with a hammer. Films are the stuff of evergreen daytime dreams, films are wonderful magic tricks, people as well as machines can be broken, we get it. This is actually fairly typical of a Logan script. You will never be left in doubt of his script’s themes, because they often might as well be shouted to the cheap seats.
But the film is not so insular that it resembles a documentary on early film. Hugo is also very much concerned with human connection. And that means prime character development! There are at least three (arguably four) romantic pairings to track throughout the film, spanning characters both major and supporting. We see bonds form, stagnate, and renew in a way that is sentimental and uplifting. That relative softness is part and parcel of the film, but it is not a detriment; there’s something wonderful about the fact that every antagonistic force here is humanized. Yes, even the comically stylized Baron Cohen lawman. The way these threads quietly progress, sometimes in the background of the main action, is a device like an infinitely less in-your-face microcosm of Love, Actually.
No character is left without attention, and I would be remiss if I didn’t bring the focus back to Butterfield’s Hugo and Chloë Grace Moretz’ bookworm Isabelle, who bring to life wonderful child characters who feel very real. The actors are adorable, but they also bring real meat to their characters. Hugo is a very typical protagonist in this type of fantasia, the orphan with daddy issues and a goal whose solution is conveniently wedged into the plot through coincidence. But Butterfield shows great interiority, rising above other child actors who might break character from time to time. Moretz reaffirms her natural screen presence and charm already established in Kick-Ass. She’s a fantastic rising talent equally at home in horrific and humorous roles. Taking a moment to touch on the continuity of film’s recent past and present, Butterfield reminds me of a new generation’s Elijah Wood, and Moretz in this particular role brings to mind Emma Watson in the early Harry Potters.
Scorsese uses obvious clockwork imagery and takes this visual motif quite far, but he doesn’t use it as a crutch. The sense of place at the railway station is effective, with its nooks, crannies, and its press of humanity being a kind of character itself. Scorsese creates a world both lived-in and polished, never letting the visual style descend into caricature. Howard Shore composes an indelible score for a finishing touch of magic (even if he repurposes a bit of his own Merry and Pippin cue from The Lord of the Rings for moments of levity).
Hugo is an accomplished film, engaging, inventive and charming in the highest fashion, enhanced by an outstanding, well-rounded cast. I can only find fault in some of the repetition of the screenplay’s themes, and your milage may vary with regard to the film’s preoccupation with certain motifs. But in my opinion, this beautiful film’s warmth definitely makes it out to the audience. 9/10.
P.S.: In both this 2011 film and 2013’s (brilliant) Iron Man 3, Ben Kingsley appears (however briefly in Hugo) as a fu manchu caricature. What a truly bizarre happenstance.