Screaming, protesting and misbehaving, adults are dragged off to each new Harry Potter film by stern children. “You will watch it and you will enjoy it,” says the unrelenting eight-year-old to the parent having a hissy fit. But Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix may pique grown-ups’ curiosity; it may even stop them running up and down the aisles distracting attentive children. A series that was in danger of becoming an adventure playground for digital trickery – “not another miraculous monster or flying thingummybob”, we protest – exhibits, for once, a strong plot with a satirical edge.
Imelda Staunton plays Dolores Umbridge with an all-pink wardrobe and a smile that could slaughter innocents. She is the teacher sent to Hogwarts by the sinister Ministry of Magic. Once in place she becomes a twinkle-eyed Stalin. She bans practical magic, bullies teachers and pupils, and in her study hung with decorative plates featuring fluffy, moving cats, she reads the riot act – ever so sweetly and implacably – to school criminals. Her closedown of civil liberties is all in the name of “security”. Where have we been hearing this sort of thing recently?
Two years after plumbing the depths of miserablism in Vera Drake, Staunton reaches high comic form. She is the ghost of Barbara Cartland mugged by the living shade of Baroness Thatcher. Thanks to her performance, we put up with the expected Grand National of monsterdom – centaurs, bat-winged horses, Ralph Fiennes gurning as gargoyle-faced Voldemort – and accept the alarming cubits added by age to Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry, Emma Watson’s Hermione and Rupert Grint’s Ron. They now each look old enough to parent their own Harry, Hermione and Ron: a frightening thought for the sequel-nervous.
Thanks to Staunton, we even feel at-home enough to appraise, at proper measure, the decor by the series designer Stuart Craig. This is becoming a thing of wonder. His underground Ministry of Magic is a gigantic mausoleum lined with shiny black tiles with outbreaks of gilded ornamentation. Think of a heyday Soviet subway station combined
with an art nouveau Hades. The towering atrium, touted in the production statistics as bigger than any in film history, makes the Burj-al-Arab look like Burger King.
For once in a Potter movie, the weird regressiveness of Rowling’s scholastic world failed to trouble me. I accepted Hogwarts as a throwback British boarding school, the kind that some of us escaped from, screaming, 40 years ago. I even accept that the pupils sit at meals – mountains of sausages, Everests of profiteroles – that should make the Ministry of Nutrition dispatch Jamie Oliver, pop tsar of responsible foodyism, to implement his own Stalinist crackdown. But that plot must wait for another movie: for the time when the Potter screen machine runs out of Rowling novels and must start, like the Bond franchise, to invent its own.
Is Taxidermia weird and wonderful, or just weird? Györgi Pálfi’s three-generation tale of Hungarian lives is a gross-out marathon. It starts with graphic sex (during the second world war), segues through speed-eating contests and vomiting (1960s), and ends “today” with the youngest scion of a wacky family (Marc Bischoff) building a machine for auto-evisceration-and-embalmment. The young man’s object? To create the perfect work of art: himself. For he is a taxidermist.
Anglophones have theorised that the three episodes, two based on stories by Lajos Parti Nagy, comprise different puns on the word “stuffing”. But there is no exact equivalent of that multi-task word, surely, in Hungarian. And if that connectivity is coincidental, we are left with flimsier harmonies concerning the human obsession with the body as Pálfi’s dynastic chronicle unspools.
It is not exactly The Forsyte Saga. More, perhaps, The Foresight Saga: a picture of history as a Dadaist- evolutionary relay race in which fathers hand on to sons a gruesome readiness for life’s raw appetites and horrors. Pálfi made the marvellous Hukkle, a black-comedy pastoral almost abstract in its observation of human doings and misdoings, as seen by the footprints left in landscape and nature. The new film will ambush the unwary, appal the squeamish and get unwanted attention from the prurient. But it has a signature, a wit and a kind of grim strength.
Oscar Wilde died complaining of the wallpaper in his Paris hotel room. French wallpaper can be a nasty thing and French costume biopics even worse: wallpaper in motion. The early scenes of Molière shimmer with a self-replicating floridity. We are in a 17th-century France where life is on an audiovisual loop, all arch etiquette, frou-frou’d costumes and the French- dialogue equivalents of “Odzooks” and “Stap me vitals”.
Things improve when filmmaker Laurent Tirard decides to go fictional. He imagines Molière (Romain Duris), as a young pre-stellar actor, taking up residence with a rich landed gent (Fabrice Luchini) who wants to learn the craft of Thespis. Comic imbroglios ensue. The merry-go-round of love whisks up competitively comely females (Laura Morante, Ludivine Sagnier). None of this really happened. But an unaccounted-for period in Molière’s life – just like that mystery hiatus in Agatha Christie’s that gave us Agatha – means moviemakers cannot resist stepping in with their size-12 artistic wellies.
Themes, characters and story points from Molière’s later plays are imagined having their fons et origo in this fantasy sojourn. It is all jolly, harmless and amusing – at least until we get back to the “real” France and the ornate wallpaper starts shimmering again.
Geoffrey Wright’s Macbeth, from Australia, does the opposite. It takes the period frou-frou out of Shakespeare’s Scottish play by setting it in present-day Melbourne gangland. The play totters at first since Wright, who made Romper Stomper, changes barely a line, though jettisoning several dozen, and it is hard to see the relevance of thanes of Cawdor and the like to the Aussie crime underworld.
The witches fare better. As teenage nymphets they cluster like groupies around Sam Worthington’s troubled, rock-starrish Macbeth and even strip for a fantasised orgy with him in their second appearance. (The witches as a wet dream? You have to admit it’s original.) There is a good banquet scene, a lissom Lady Macbeth (Victoria Hill) and a clever solution to the Birnam-comes-to-Dunsinane problem. After a few early spins in his grave, Shakespeare may end up grudgingly respectful.