Harry Potter and the Power of Design

6 Dec

It’s really a pity that the latest Harry Potter film – like the previous two – is stuffed with frantic action sequences. It’s also soggily weighed down by uneven acting and a clunky script revealing scant understanding of the emotional nuances of JK Rowling’s writing.

Yet the character and set design, as well as screen composition, are absolutely beautiful and – no other word for it – smart. Sensible artistic liberties have been missing from the movies since the time Alfonso Cuarón worked on the third installment.

Here are a few of my favourite things:

Fred and George Weasley are characters that translate extremely well to film – they serve as witty comedic relief on-screen and off, and the twin factor allows for almost-too-easy visual gags. The comedy factor is especially important and poignant in this chapter of the series because the characters have finally come to open war. It’s a deadly serious business, but the human race does have one really effective weapon, and that is laughter (Mark Twain, paraphrased). The Boggarts, manifestations of fear, were quickly vanquished by laughter (Prisoner of Azkaban), and the twins’ colourful joke shop complete with anti-Voldemort posters stood out like a banner in a gloomy Hogsmeade tense for attacks (Half-Blood Prince).

George’s missing ear after the Death Eater attack – which the producers brilliantly saw fit to turn into yet another joke and visual gag, see film – is a gory wound that contrasts strongly with the brashly bright colours of the vests here, again an indication of the obstinately courageous nature so necessary and so counteractive to the world Voldemort sought to re-establish.

It’s physically palpable how much fun the costume designers had with the wedding sequence, not least because of the twins’ paisley shirts, Hagrid’s polka-dot tie and Ron’s curlique-adorned vest, because this is a magical world where fashion is allowed to be a bit more boisterous (as well as, again, characteristic – the fact that Ron’s always in maroon seems inextricably related to how their busy mother “colour codes” her seven children).

Though the movies have consistently omitted the concept of wizard robes, I absolutely love how the dresses have a balance of flamboyance and taste that fits harmoniously into Rowling’s universe.

It’s lovely to see how all the dresses have different measures of floral embellishments (in line with the ‘garden party concept’ of Bill and Fleur’s wedding), modified to suit each person’s style. Hermione in red seems like an unusual choice, but it’s also a nice indication of how she has come into her own as a female, fiery in the best sense of the word, and worthy of respect because of her ability to wield her academic as well as emotional intelligence without descending into manipulation. The comparative simplicity of her accessories tie in with the character’s minimal physical vanities.

Fleur is considerably less Veela-like than in the books, but the silvery and feathery adornments offer an appropriately otherworldly, not-quite-human aura. While Ginny is rather narrowly confined to the role of “I shall tempt Harry Potter” in this film, her dress flawlessly reflects how she blossoms as a character in the books. It’s very sweet – she’s the youngest Weasley, after all – but also very elegant. (Her dress is also the one I’d LOVE to own and get away with wearing in real life.)

Luna’s blinged-up radish earrings are truly a winner. She, like the Weasley twins, is one of the humorous characters who truly took on a presence that extended beyond book portrayal.

I love the composition of these frames. While the tortured Ollivander blends into the background, Luna is the one spot of colour in the Malfoy dungeons, consistently calm and measured though bruised – I was rudely shocked when she first appeared in a close-up. The abuse of these light characters somehow brings to mind the murder of the unicorn in Philosopher’s Stone; after its discovery, Harry says he “had never seen anything so beautiful and sad”. The undercurrent of evil, operating in stealth for six books, is finally and dangerously visible.

While the films have led Ron and Hermione’s on-screen dynamic to become progressively one-sided (Hermione saves the day; Ron is gormless), these are again beautiful compositions. I love the bleak outdoor colours that underscore the tragedy right after the trio escapes yet another near-death experience. Shell Cottage is an atmospheric yet uneasy haven for them in the novel; its temporary peace is perfectly captured by the chilly seaside location. Ron’s height here is emphasised as he stands by Hermione protectively. This physical balance of power has shifted from when they are seated at the piano and Hermione is at the forefront of the shot.

Finally, it continually occurs to me how much the British thespians get from the Potter franchise. It’s cakewalk for them, acting-wise; it’s more than a load more bucks in the bank; minor roles mean less time committment… and goodness me, it’s so much fun. I adored Bill Nighy as the new Prime Minister in this. He certainly plays the weathered, reedy yet firm figure “like an old lion” to great effect, but the calculative parts of Scrimgeour were largely removed when his character was cut down for film length. In other words, he has become a rather gentle and lovable uncle of a lion. It brought to mind other unexpectedly lovable characters that Nighy has played.

P.S. The creator of the incredible “Tale of the Three Brothers” animation sequence, Swiss director Ben Hibon, is slated to do a “radical re-imagining” of Peter Pan. More about his work here – his films remind of me of The Animatrix, one of the early triggers of my interest in animation.

All pictures from Fanpop.


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