June/July/Aug 2009

Growing Pains

Watching these actors turn into awkward teenagers before our eyes has lent the films an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Bilge Ebiri


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince will seem curiously lonely when it arrives in theaters this July. For the first time since the film series premiered in 2001 with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, no one is anticipating a new Potter novel by J. K. Rowling, the books having run their course two years ago. The films still have a ways to go; after Half-Blood Prince, Warner Bros. plans to split the final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, into two films and release them in 2010 and 2011. The stated reason is that the company wants to do the book justice, but one might be excused in thinking it wants to milk more money out of their franchise before saying good-bye.

The Harry Potter films are a unique phenomenon. On one level, they never venture far from their source—and for obvious reasons. Watched over by a vigilant, obsessive fan base, these films have done little more than color inside the lines of Rowling’s much-picked-over plots. The one that took the greatest liberties was probably Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004); it was both the most acclaimed and the lowest-grossing film of the series.

Nevertheless, the films have taken on a strange, if perhaps unintentional, life of their own, because of the very nature of their time span. Daniel Radcliffe was eleven when he was cast as Harry Potter; Emma Watson nine when cast as Hermione Granger. That was nine years ago; by the time the final film hits screens, we’ll have spent more than a decade watching them—and the actors will have spent even longer working closely together. Viewing the Yule Ball scenes in 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable, as if we’re spying on someone’s prom. The results are unfolding like a fantasy variation on Michael Apted’s Up documentaries, which since 1964 have revisited their subjects at seven-year intervals to see where they are in life.

The qualities that make a ten-year-old a good actor are not those that do the same for a twenty-year-old; watching these kids turn into awkward teenagers before our eyes has lent the films a strange atmosphere of uncertainty and anarchy, finally separating them from the books. Watson has become a much chillier performer, producing an odd tension in her portrayal of her high-strung character. Radcliffe, on the other hand, has transformed from the wide-eyed naïf of the first films into a rather theatrical presence; this works with the melodrama of the later Potter stories, but one does wonder whether the producers ever suspected that the nerdy, Spielbergian kid they were casting in 2000 would turn into a latter-day Sal Mineo.

Radcliffe is certainly drawn to the stage: He stirred up controversy (and acclaim) a couple years ago when, in a London revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, he actually did a nude scene. (“Harry Potter Nude!” bellowed headlines, as angry parents wrote in to the papers, chastising the young actor for not considering his status as a role model.) Indeed, Half-Blood Prince was slated to open in theaters in November 2008, coinciding with the Broadway run of Equus. The film was suddenly pushed back to 2009, for no apparent reason. Some speculated that Warner didn’t want their Harry Potter film opening while Harry himself was going full Monty on Broadway. To his credit, the actor seems unfazed by the public’s identification of him with his character. (He once said that he hoped Rowling would kill Potter off in the final book.) Regardless, it will be intriguing to see how a generation raised on these films will regard the group of actors post-Potter. Like it or not, they’ve all been through something remarkable together.

Uneasy Virtue

At first glance, Stephan Elliott’s film of Noel Coward’s 1926 play Easy Virtue would appear to be a standard-issue adaptation of a dusty classic: stiff upper lips, English country homes, Colin Firth, and all that. But in truth, the film represented a number of challenges for Elliott (best known for 1994’s outré Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), who had to not only translate Coward’s work for the screen but also find some way to make it relevant for modern audiences. That the result manages to be both compelling and appropriately Cowardesque should come as a relief—and, frankly, a surprise.

The story concerns the chaos that erupts when John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), the beloved son of a landed British family, brings home his new bride, Larita (Jessica Biel), a race-car-driving American divorcée, much to the concern of his parents (Kristin Scott Thomas and Firth). While the decaying British aristocracy was a favorite theme of Coward’s, Easy Virtue is otherwise not especially typical of his work; for starters, it lacks the sly, languid comedy that would become his hallmark. “It’s a quite harsh and savage melodrama,” Elliott says. “I don’t think Coward had found his true humor yet. He hadn’t become ‘Noel Coward.’ He was just a kid, really.” Elliott and screenwriter Sheridan Jobbins had the idea of reimagining Easy Virtue as a later Coward play and wound up adding a bit of barbed comic dialogue.

But the most important change came in the filmmakers’ decision to set the story several years later. “We bumped it forward to the eve of the Great Depression,” Elliott says. “We wanted this sense of impending doom.” The filmmakers hoped to breathe currency into the story; the parallels with our era were suddenly disquieting. “The times are almost identical,” says Jobbins. “You have a world recovering from a terrifying type of warfare, along with a recession that had started in the country before it hit the cities, in the wake of all this wild spending.”

Elliott still had to wrestle with making Easy Virtue cinematic. Even Alfred Hitchcock, who filmed the play in 1928, couldn’t quite crack it. Indeed, one could argue that Coward’s work has never quite translated to film. His best films are decidedly uncharacteristic: There are no bons mots in David Lean’s devastating Brief Encounter (1945), adapted from Still Life (1936). And there’s little fizz to be found in Lean and Coward’s In Which We Serve (1942), an acclaimed World War II drama about shipwrecked British sailors. A more Cowardesque film, Cavalcade, won a Best Picture Oscar in 1933, but today it plays like a transmission from an alien planet. Coward did belatedly achieve a successful career as a film actor, with iconic supporting parts in Our Man in Havana (1959) and The Italian Job (1969). As Coward scholar Barry Day has observed, it took him a while to realize “the futility of insisting on pre-war Coward in a post-war world.”

Elliott’s solution in filming this prewar Coward for a twenty-first-century audience was to approach the visual style as he had the humor. “I thought about how the later Hitchcock might have dealt with this same material.” As a result, Elliott’s Easy Virtue is full of expressive (and occasionally even expressionistic) camera angles that lend it a sense of shifting perspective and toy with the audience in subtle ways. Hitchcock perfected this technique to build suspense in the thriller genre; Elliott uses it to heighten the tension between characters in a melodrama.

What will purists think? Some early reviews in Britain took the filmmakers to task for slaughtering one of England’s sacred cows. Elliott says he felt bad, until he looked up the play’s original notices: “I put the reviews side by side. They were practically identical,” he recalls. That helped convince him he had made the right choice; since then, critics and audiences in other countries have been more enthusiastic. “Coward was very open about wanting to do something very contemporary with Easy Virtue,” Jobbins says. “He wanted it to be a modern play about modern ideas.”

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