All eyes are on The Woman in Black this weekend to see if Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe will have a movie career now that the J.K. Rowling franchise is over. We think he will, even if The Woman in Black kinda sucked. But it does call attention to the cinematic careers of everyone in Harry Potter’s sprawling ensemble cast. Did you know that all those teachers, villains and supporting actors in your favorite fantasy series actually had careers outside of Harry Potter? It’s true, and this week on Five Great Movies we’re taking a look at the careers of the franchise’s illustrious alumni.
If you threw a rock on the set of any of the Harry Potter movies, the odds of hitting a great British character actor would have been in your favor. So narrowing the field down to five was pretty darned hard this week, which I’m pretty sure is something we say in almost every installment. As always, we remind you that these aren’t the five greatest movies, just five great ones. Let us know your favorite films to feature Harry Potter alumni in the comments below!
Sense and Sensibility (dir. Ang Lee, 1995)
Harry Potter Alumni: Emma Thompson (Sybill Trelawney), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge)
It’s hard to imagine these days, but Jane Austen was pretty much the J.K. Rowling of the 1990s. The English author’s novels, about 200 years old now, were feverishly snatched up by studios seeking to capture the costume drama zeitgeist and a couple of technical Oscars in the process. But the best of all of these adaptations was easily Sense and Sensibility, directed by future Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon filmmaker Ang Lee, and starring Emma Thompson, who also wrote the film’s Academy Award-winning screenplay.
The film stars Thompson as the quiet Elinor Dashwood, who personifies “sense” while her passionate sister Marianne (Kate Winslet) takes up the “sensibility” moniker. Their lives are in turmoil after the death of their father drops them into a state of poverty. Most of Jane Austen’s protagonists are expected to find a husband of good means to take care of them, and most of them aren’t necessarily looking to settle for anything less than true love. It sounds trite today, but in Austen created some damned compelling heroines in her day, and Elinor and Marianne were no exceptions. Their clashing personalities create conflict within the family, but also to their love interests, and both women find that their dedication to one emotional proclivity or another is standing in the way of true happiness.
Ang Lee directs Sense and Sensibility with an eye for period sumptuousness and the kind of romanticism we’ve come to expect from his work, making it the best of the 1990s Jane Austen adaptations. It’s clearly a Chick Flick, but it’s so well crafted that it should entertain even the manliest man if he’s willing to sit down long enough to actually watch the damned thing. And Professor Snape fans will particularly enjoy Alan Rickman in a rare romantic role (Truly Madly Deeply is also highly recommended to you Snapers out there). Sense and Sensibility is one of the best costume dramas around.
The film stars Thompson as Elinor Dashwood, whose family has hit hard times following the death of her father. Elinor and her sister Marianne (Kate Winslet) are polar opposites, with Elinor being the sensible type and the more romantic
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 1996)
Harry Potter Alumni: Kenneth Branagh (Gilderoy Lockhart), Julie Christie (Madame Rosmerta), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), Ray Fearon (Firenze)
For my money, the Laurence Olivier version of Hamlet remains the best cinematic presentation of William Shakespeare’s most famous play, largely because he realized that the story needed judicious editing to work as a feature film. Hamlet is beautifully written, but dramatically difficult, since the hero (such as he is) spends most of the story debating whether or not to do anything whatsoever. But Kenneth Branagh took the opposite approach entirely with his 1996 production, putting every damned word on the screen in a four-hour epic spectacular, and while it’s not quite as thrilling as the 1948 Best Picture-winner, it’s one hell of an accomplishment nonetheless.
The story, for those who never had to take English in high school, follows Prince Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) after the unexpected death of his father. Although Hamlet is old enough to inherit the throne, his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) swoops in and marries the Queen (Julie Christie) first. Hamlet’s pretty pissed about that, but he’s too sullen to do anything about it until the ghost of his father (the great Brian Blessed) shows up to accuse Claudius of his murder. Hamlet spends most of the film trying to prove whether the ghost was right, going mad in the process, before a bravura Douglas Fairbanks-inspired finale – in the Branagh version, at least – involving one hell of a swordfight and a total bloodbath.
The pacing is a little off in this version of the film, as the plot get a little lost in a series of meaningful digressions. But Branagh’s going completely nuts as a director, giving each scene a lush presentation worthy of David O. Selznick and making every poetic line the kind of attention needed to make the meaning and context clear to even the most modern of audiences. Practically every part is played by a recognizable face, which sometimes makes smaller characters seem more important than they really are (Jack Lemmon and Robin Williams are prime offenders), but Branagh isn’t really doing Hamlet here, he’s doing a great, big mash note to the Bard, giving him the epic treatment he’s rarely received. It’s one hell of a movie for Shakespeare fans, and grand enough in scope to rope casual viewers in as well, if they can dedicate the time to it.
In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh, 2008)
Harry Potter Alumni: Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Brendan Gleeson (Alastor ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody), Clémence Poésy (Fleur Delacour), Ciarán Hinds (Aberforth Dumbledore)
A little less classy but no less excellent, Martin McDonagh’s crime comedy In Bruges found a gaggle of Harry Potter regulars – including the rarely seen Clémence Poésy – gallivanting around the Belgian city of Bruges following a botched assassination. Colin Farrell’s responsible for the bungled job, and is wittily dour through the film while his companion Brendan Gleeson tries, unsuccessfully, to get him to enjoy the city’s many fanciful tourist attractions. The film was marketed as yet another Quentin Tarantino knock-off, but it’s something much deeper than that, earning McDonagh a well deserved but unexpected Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
In his best role since Tigerland, Farrell plays Ray, a thug on the run. Unlike most crime comedies though, he seems legitimately troubled by his actions. None of that amoral douchebaggery that infects so many other, similar productions. We gradually learn over the course of In Bruges what Ray’s so freaked out about, and it’s a legitimately upsetting revelation that raises serious questions about how we’re supposed to feel about the events of the film, which are fanciful but tainted by serious emotional themes. It’s a tiny character comedy, with some powerful sh*t on its mind. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how impressively original it feels.
The Gruffalo (dirs. Max Lang & Jakob Schuh, 2009)
Harry Potter Alumni: Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), John Hurt (Garrick Ollivander)
The Oscar-nominated animated short The Gruffalo stars a series of Harry Potter regulars as adorable widdle aminals, but it’s not just a little kiddie flick. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s original storybook tells the story of a small mouse in the woods who scares away his predators by inventing an even scarier animal, “The Gruffalo,” to intimidate him. He thinks he’s rather clever until, surprise! It turns out the Gruffalo is real. How’s he going to get out of this one? It’s actually rather clever. The story was original based on a Chinese folk tale about a tiger, but apparently it’s pretty hard to rhyme with “tiger,” so the fictitious Gruffalo was invented.
The beautifully animated adaptation of The Gruffalo was directed by Max Lang and Jakob Schuh, and cleverly added a wrap-around device of a family of squirrels scared to leave their tree for fear of predators. Helena Bonham Carter plays the mother squirrel, who concocts the story of The Gruffalo to teach her children a lesson in how to survive based on their wits, but also smartly plays off of their input as the film progresses. With spot-on performances and a smart sense of humor, it was surprising that The Gruffalo lost last year’s Oscar to the decidedly quirkier, but still excellent The Lost Thing, but that doesn’t make it any less of a winner.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (dir. Tomas Alfredson, 2011)
Harry Potter Alumni: Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), John Hurt (Garrick Ollivander), Toby Jones (Dobby the Elf), Ciarán Hinds (Aberforth Dumbledore), Simon McBurney (Kreacher)
There are those who accuse Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy of being a little impenetrable, and emotionally cold. That’s the entire point. John le Carré’s classic spy novel was given the all-star British character actor treatment to tell a story about unspoken truths that justly earned three Oscar nominations this year, including Best Actor for Sirius Black himself, Gary Oldman.
Oldman stars as George Smiley, an agent of MI6 who’s ousted after a bungled operation during the Cold War. He’s eventually called back into service to discover the identity of a highly-placed mole within the organization, which forces the reserved protagonist to investigate the lives of his old friends and associates. Alfredson, whose Let the Right One In remains one of the great vampire movies, directs Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in a manner befitting the film’s themes of subterfuge, keeping the story intentionally obtuse to those who, unlike Smiley, aren’t willing to look close enough to figure out what’s really going on. Smiley himself might be an unassuming protagonist, but his quiet façade belies his true failings as a man, a husband and an agent of MI6, and supporting characters like Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch are also keeping secrets that could jeopardize their place in both British society and within the organization, giving Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a sense of social relevance beyond its Cold War trappings. Screw Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, this is the best spy movie in years.
That’s it for this week. Come back next Wednesday for more Five Great Movies, and until then… what areyour favorite Harry Potter alumni movies?