Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore

My Review: 2

First of all, let me clarify what this post is about. I am a rabid Harry Potter fan eagerly anticipating the release of the seventh and final book as well as the 5th movie adaptation. I am not here to compare Sir Michael Gambon to Sir Richard Harris. I am not here to blast Sir Michael Gambon as an actor. I happen to think that he is an extremely fine actor, world renowned for his theatrical prowess and for his professionalism in big budget productions for the silver screen. There is no debate (in my mind) as to his competence as an actor in general; I think that he is excellent.

No, this review is focused solely on his performance and interpretation of the character Albus Dumbledore in the film adaptations of the Harry Potter books, specifically books 3, 4, and 5. (The late Sir Richard Harris played the role of Dumbledore for movies 1 and 2.)

The role of Albus Dumbledore is a familiar one in the “Hero’s Quest” genre of story telling. Many such stories feature an aged, wise mentor whose role it is to protect, educate, and guide the hero. (For examples please refer to Brom in the Eragon series by Christopher Paolini, Cort in the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, Gandalf in the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein, and Curly in the movie City Slickers featuring Jack Palance and Billy Crystal.) Different authors choose different paths for their guides and mentors to follow, including how prominently they figure in the story, how they teach (kindly or with tough love) and whether they live or die in the story. In this instance we are dealing with J.K. Rowling’s much beloved grandfatherly figure: Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore.

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Dumbledore is wise. Dumbledore is kind. He is funny, charismatic, ever-polite and courteous, and always exudes a radiating sense of power and calm. He is a rock from which to anchor oneself in the stormy seas of Rowling’s magical world. He is not snappish, abrupt or rude. He never shouts at people. He always gives the appearance of calm control. (***Notable exception and possible plot killer – read the asterisk below, but only if you have already read book 6 or you do not care about the plot being exposed.)

All that being said, I must now begin the regrettable process of lambasting an otherwise fine actor. Gambon’s performance in this role drives me crazy. He shouts and frets. He twists his fingers with a look of great consternation on his face. He moves rapidly, and talks over people. He argues, fusses and fumbles for words. To put it another way, he acts in every way opposite of the image of Albus Dumbledore.

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Now, in fairness, Gambon has a tough job to do in filling the shoes of Sir Richard Harris. Not only was Harris one of the most remarkable actors of all time (in my humble opinion) he also nailed the role of Dumbledore perfectly. Calm, collected, and always with a merry little twinkle in his eye. (Note the Bertie Botts scene at the end of the first movie.) Again, I don’t want to compare the two, but I do want to acknowledge the admittedly difficult task of reprising a role done so well by such a fine actor.

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(Harris as Dumbledore in the “Botts” scene)

It is entirely reasonable that Gambon would want to make the character his own; in fact, I respect him for that ambition. But I feel more strongly than I can express that his performances as Dumbledore to date (movies 3 and 4) are way, way off target. It is immensely frustrating to see a character whom I respect and cherish mishandled.

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An equal share of the blame goes to the directors involved, Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell. It was partially (even significantly) their responsability to own and understand the character and “direct” the actor in his performance. I think in not steering Gambon towards a calmer, more commanding persona they both did the actor a grave disservice, and did enormous damage to the quality of both movies.

I must say that I am anxious to see the latest movie, Harry Potter 5: The Order of the Phoenix. By all accounts the scripting, acting and effects are outstanding. Aside from the tremendous detraction found in Gambon’s performance as Dumbledore, I enjoyed movie #4 the most since movie #1. I can only hope that the latest director David Yates has taken it upon himself to re-direct Gambon in his interpretation of the role.

I’d love any comments on this – I feel strongly about this particular subject. I may update after seeing the movie – it opens tonight at midnight and I will be there. But based on the performances so far (in movies 3 and 4) I have to give his performance as Albus Dumbledore a resounding 2.

PS

I loved Gambon as the villain in Open Range with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall; he was truly outstanding and totally despicable (in the right way.)

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(Gambon is in the middle.)

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For reference, here is the IMDB page for Michael Gambon.

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*** In book 6 Dumbledore drinks a vile potion concocted by Lord Voldemort. This potion magically induces a firghtened and delirious state which includes shouting and fear. Soon thereafter Dumbledore is killed after pleading with a member of his teaching staff back at the school where he serves as Headmaster. These events are contrary to the points I am making about the chractr of Voldemort, but I submit that they are irrelevant for two reasons: 1. These are exceptional circumstances which lead up to the character’s death. 2. This book (6) has not yet been filmed and should have little or no bearing on the performance of the character of Dumbledore up to this point.

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Update:

I saw the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  I think they did a fine job.  They crammed  800 or so pages into 138 minutes of screen time, and I think they did a credible job.  Gambon’s performance as Dumbledore suffered from similar woes to those in the past, but had two small saving graces in this movie:

1. Rowling build a degree of conflict between Harry and Dumbledore into the plot of this story, and though I still don’t like the degree of agitation Gambon portrays in his character, there is at least some more tension that is legitimately supposed to exist in this movie.

2. Dumbledore’s role in this movie is much smaller that in past reprisals; thus we need suffer less than we might have.  (All right that was a low blow.  Sorry.)

For just this movie (as opposed to Gambon’s portrayal of Dumbledore across all 3) I would rate him a 4.  For the whole suite I am sticking to my 2 rating.  Movie number 4 justs makes me mad.

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10 comments so far

  1. ChickensRule on

    Hallelujah!! Someone finally said it. Albus should command a presence by simply being in a room, rather than tromping around demanding it. The Directors should cast a 3rd Dumbledore. . .

  2. London Mike on

    Nice critical review. I’m not really a Harry Potter fan (never read a page of any of the books), but in general I do like movies about fantasy that have good action and lots of state-of-the-art CG. I don’t really remember the first movie and never saw the second one, but the fourth one I did see and I agree with what you’re saying about how the character is portrayed. Actually, my impression of the character (since I haven’t read the books) is that he is a wise wizard, but socially he’s a blubbering goof that gets flustered regularly and acts more like a mother hen than a Gandalf-type character (or Curly, for that matter) as you referenced in your review.

    Actually, what prompted me to comment about this is that reference you made to “the ‘Hero’s Quest’ genre of story telling.” While scrolling through your reviews, that line caught my eye and I read this one first because of it. You may not know (or remember?) why that means anything to me, so let me explain.

    “Hero’s Quest” was the original title of an adventure game for PC in an RPG style that was released in 1989 (later named “Quest for Glory”) and spawned a 5-game series over 10 years of excellent, fun adventures. I thought that you were referencing this series, but it appears that you were not. The series doesn’t exactly fit your mold of the “‘Hero’s Quest’ genre” since the hero doesn’t have a singular mentor, although the friendly wizard Erasmus who appears in all 5 games would probably qualify if your criteria were loose enough.

    Hmm…sorry for going on this tangent, but just the sight of that title sent me on a nostalgic trip down 10 years of memory lane. Since I’ve already rambled on a lot, I hope I’ve earned an opportunity for a couple mini-1to10 reviews:

    The “Quest for Glory” series: 9
    It’s really hard for me to not give this an absolute 10, but let me try to be critical. The second game, “Trial by Fire” had one of the best stories, but they never made a remake to update the graphics from EGA to at least VGA-quality like they did with the first one. While that’s not a big issue for hard-core fans like me, there are a couple things like that that make it less-than-perfect. Also, I would’ve loved it if they came out with another game, or 5 more games in the series, but I realize that wasn’t what they had planned for the story arc and they did end it in spectacular fashion for the fans. But if I’m not going to give it a 10, I’d really like to give it at least a 9.5, but I notice you seem to use whole numbers for your reviews, so I’ll keep up the trend and try to be happy with giving it just a 9.

    The hero-mentor relationship: 6
    You are absolutely right in that this is a common theme in many stories and there are several ways in which it can be played out. In general, I think this type of relationship is a positive thing that helps an audience understand the level of competency of the protagonist, as well as provide insight into what adventures and dangers lie ahead. However, I’m not so hot on it for a few reasons. First, while this type of relationship is common both in storytelling and in life, it is can be used as a crutch in stories and may actually act to prevent us from seeing new and creative ways for the hero to learn and discover the secrets he/she must uncover. Second, I’m a big advocate of listening to several viewpoints on an issue as opposed to having a go-to-guy that has his answer to everything — while it’s not always portrayed like this, the hero is often seen to assume that everything his mentor says is always 100% true, which is fantasy (and that’s ok, but I’d still like to see other opinions on the matter). Lastly, I’m a big fan of heroes that go out and take a little bit of info from everyone and figure things out on their own, much like is done in the “Quest for Glory” series. Ok, I just had to bring this rant back around to my favorite adventure game series of all time to wrap this up. Thanks for the time and keep the reviews coming!

    Curious? No, probably not, but I thought I’d provide some reference anyway:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quest_for_Glory

    [Just to be clear, “Quest for Glory” has nothing to do with the board game “Hero Quest” which I know nothing about nor do I have any knowledge of its computerized version. But to the best of my knowledge, the “Quest for Glory” series whoops that game’s ass.]

  3. David on

    Interesting… And I love your mini-reviews, 1to10 style. Please continue. And feel free to use half, quarter, or any other fractions / percentages that you like. No real rules to break in here.

    And your thoughts on the hero-mentor relationship are interesting. As is happens, the latest (and final) Harry Potter book have an interesting treatment of that relationship, and the mentor is exposed to be quite as fallible and complex as anyone you might meet on the street. Rowling did a nice job in NOT pigeon holing her protagonists and characters into rote character slots. But I agree, it’s tempting and easy for authors to turn characters into caricatures, and archetypes into cliches.

  4. London Mike on

    Good to hear that some authors that are getting tons of hype are actually still writing creative material.

    Thanks for the permission to assign ratings as I see fit — I eventually did go back and find a couple .5’s in your previous reviews. So, in light of this…

    My Review:
    The “Quest for Glory” series: 9.9

  5. RosiePowell on

    All that being said, I must now begin the regrettable process of lambasting an otherwise fine actor. Gambon’s performance in this role drives me crazy. He shouts and frets. He twists his fingers with a look of great consternation on his face. He moves rapidly, and talks over people. He argues, fusses and fumbles for words. To put it another way, he acts in every way opposite of the image of Albus Dumbledore.

    I would agree with you if you were speaking of Gambon’s performance in THE GOBLET OF FIRE. But since you seem to be speaking of his performances in all of the three movies he has appeared in . . . I COMPLETELY DISAGREE WITH YOU.

  6. David on

    Thanks for your comment Rosie. I understand your feelings, especially about movie #5. As I mention above, I think he did an acceptable job, though his screen time was noticeably limited in this one. However, I do think that his attitude and actions in #3 and #4 were very out of character. It sounds like you agree with me for number 4, and we can agree to let #5 slide, so let’s focus on number 3.

    I think that in this movie, as in movie 4, Gambon portrays an agitated Dumbledore, one who does not exude that essence of calm with which I envision the character. For instance, when they approach the portrait of the Fat Lady outside the Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore has a trembly, out-of-control tone and demeanor. That’s the kind of circumstance where Dumbldore (the character) ought to instill a sense of calm control in those around him. Instead, he seems to do the opposite.

    Again, I think this is as much (or more) a matter of direction than one of acting, but I don’t care for it. I’m sorry if you disagree with me. But I appreciate you reading the post and offering your thoughts. Thanks. 🙂

    David

    BTW, did you read #7 yet? I thought it was awesome.

  7. Tedness on

    Michael Gambon is a terrible Dumbledore. He has repeatedly expressed his apathy towards the story, his own miserable failings as a character actor, and his dislike of character research. Why, why haven’t they recast yet?

  8. David on

    Hey Tedness, thanks for your comment. I agree with you (obviously I guess, or I wouldn’t have written this post.)

    Do you have the links to some of those articles or interviews – I think that’d be interesting to read.

    Thanks,

    David

  9. Michael on

    I couldn’t agree more with this review. After seeing the movies in close succession after recently reading the books, i felt that it was such an injustice and found myself extremely disappointed that Harris had passed away after the shooting of the first two movies, he knew how Dumbledore was supposed be portrayed. Even small things i find frustrate me about Gambon’s performance for example when he calls for silence in the Great Hall. The character Dumbledore barely needs to whisper for silence and he has it, whereas Gambon’s portrayal shows a Dumbledore yelling across the hall

  10. David on

    Hey Michael, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you agree, and I I think your example was a great one. That’s exactly the type of behavior that is so frustrating coming from this character; a character that I consider to be extremely self-possessed.


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