Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

November 25, 2010

We’re almost there.  Just a little further and we’ll be done.  One more movie after this one, due to be released next summer, and that’s it.  The deluxe DVD/Blu-Ray box set in the shape of Hogwarts, that opens and unfolds like moving staircases, will be released around this time next year, perfectly coinciding with the holiday season.  No sympathy for the people who bought the “Years 1-5” or the “Years 1-6” set, because they should have known better.  We all knew it was coming.  The final swing of the wand.  The last catch of the snitch.  The ultimate Ron Weasley gormless face pull.  The end.  Almost.

We do have the matter of the final book, which has been split into two parts for reasons of story length and, more realistically, money.  Oh, I know I shouldn’t be so cynical.  It’s a long book, and where they could easily cast off subplots and characters to fit equally long books into a single movie before, this is the last one and it presumably features the ultimate battle between good and evil.  Plus it’s a franchise worth billions of dollars and it’s been going for ten years now, so if Peter Jackson’s 8 hour epic deserves a 30 minute victory lap, then this 20 hour monstrosity deserves a hell of a lot more.

Previous installments, especially the last two, have felt hampered by a rushed pace to get through all the material necessary to move the plot forward.  This ending has been a long time coming, after all.  I’m actually glad they split this into two, because even though I’ve never read the books, I imagine there’s a lot to get through, and I always welcome a more considered pace.  It turns out, however, that even with more time, director David Yates and writer Steve Kloves never had much interest in the particulars.  Scenes are quickly established and ran through with the same incoherent abandon as before, and all the minor details that established the rules of the universe (and, more often than not, a particular situation) are fobbed off in quick asides and brief, woefully expository dialogue.  If they’re on the run, and have already used a potion that changes their form into something else, why do they not use it when visiting Voldemort and Harry’s hometown?  Because it’s his hometown and he wants to return to it as himself, that’s why.  I understand these clunky moments where they must set up the parameter of the sequence being used in an episode of Doctor Who, but we’ve had a long time to work out this world, and it sometimes feel like a set piece is more important than the cohesive whole.  Of course, this is an adaptation of a book, and my assumption is that it all moves perfectly well and makes perfect sense in that longer form.  However, that just leads me to believe that they’re not really interested in dwelling on the particulars, because the fans know them already, and if you’ve been following this long, then you probably already understand it all.  I’ve not read the books, and as has been said many times before, these films are separate entities and should be treated as such.  But we’ve heard all of this before.  I just thought it important to note that even with the extended time allowed, they’re doing the same thing.

Not that the larger story is incoherent.  It’s actually pretty simple.  Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) are being hunted by Voldemort and his cronies.  The Dark Lord has infiltrated the Ministry of Magic and is apparently setting a course for a eugenics-like cleansing of half-bloods and muggles.  The kids, meanwhile, must avoid capture and find all the pieces of Voldemort’s soul in order to kill him.  It’s a hero’s quest, with good and evil so starkly defined that the motives of either side are never explored or even questioned.  Voldemort is evil because that’s what he is.  Harry is good because that’s what he is.  I am resigned to never really understanding why these characters are what they are, and perhaps that doesn’t matter.  There’s not really wrong with playing up these broad, mythic stories in such a way.  Where it falls short is Radcliffe’s inability to infuse much depth into Harry.  It’s a difficult trick to pull off for a truly great actor, much less a merely decent one who has been playing the same role for most of his life.  Likewise, Ralph Fiennes doesn’t inject more than a somewhat campy menace to Voldemort.  That is, perhaps, and even more difficult trick, given how little screen time he’s actually had over the course of the seven movies.  Not everyone can be Orson Welles in The Third Man and, let’s be honest, Voldemort is no Harry Lime.  The only one of the leads that really stands out is Hermione.  She feels like she’s had a real arc over the course of the series, and I was genuinely worried for her towards the end of the film when she was in some duress.

Despite all of that, this is probably my second favourite film of the lot (Goblet of Fire remains the best), and it is almost solely down to two extended sequences.  The first being a fantastic shadow-puppet animation used to tell the story of the titular Deathly Hallows.  It breathes life into the telling of the legend while also serving to comment on the larger narrative and its place within the mythic tradition.  I sound harsh on the series sometimes, and while it doesn’t always work for me, I do realize (and it is important to remember) that this is the where the story is pitched.  The second, and perhaps the most moving and impressive scenes in the whole franchise, come when Hermione and Harry are on their own, moving from one gorgeous, isolated landscape to the next.  The visuals and the design in the series thus far have tended to highlight certain aspects of a particular situation, whether its whimsical magic of Hogwarts with its talking portraits or the numerous nightmarish caves, dilapidated houses, and eerie chambers when our heroes are in peril.  They’ve never truly managed to express the feelings of the characters in the larger narrative, however, until now.  The scenery is vast and beautiful, yes, but it’s also isolating and lacking in any comfort whatsoever.  They’re not at school anymore, and the Order of the Phoenix can’t protect them out in the wilderness.  Harry and Hermione are lost and confused, and natural beauty is no comfort.  There’s an extraordinary shot looking up at a clear blue sky from under a bridge.  That crisp azure is then bisected by the black smoky menace of a death eater.  The true darkness has tended to move through dim, foreboding spaces, and this might be the first time that the evil has really penetrated the previously safe sunshine.  It all leads to Harry and Hermione in the tent, listening to the radio.  Nick Cave’s “O Children” comes on, at first in static, diegetic sound.  Harry takes Hermione and attempts to dance with her.  It’s awkward as hell, but it’s meant to be.  When things are looking as down as they are, forced levity is better than none at all.  It’s quite a relief, then, when the music clears up and takes over the soundtrack, and the dancing feels less awkward and more fun.  The momentary escape from the overwhelming sense of peril and confusion brings the most genuine and honest emotional connection between two characters the series has produced so far.  It’s a wonderful moment, well played and certainly earned.

It doesn’t end with the great big cliffhanger flourish that Doctor Who has, as noted in my last Harry Potter review, achieved time and time again.  It ends rather abruptly, with a small climax but with no new knowledge gained to keep us waiting for the next one.  We’re locked in now, of course, so it doesn’t really matter.  We need to see it through now.  We need closure to the anecdote.  It’s been a firmly mediocre but not unenjoyable journey.  The final installment will probably be wall-to-wall plot and pyrotechnics, but before the thrills and inevitable shrugs that will soon follow when the credits begin to roll, I’m happy we got a few moments of grace and beauty.  Normally I might look upon those scenes as a glimpse into what could have been, but by this point, I’m just too exhausted.  Bring on the last adventure, and then let’s be done with it.


One Response to “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1”

  1. So glad you posted after a long period of waiting … which was much like what the public will experience waiting for the last half of the end of Potter.

    Having read the books, but not recalling most of the details due to all the time gone by, watching the films is almost a fresh experience. Only saw the first in theaters and the 2nd and 3rd on DVD. Next up would be the 4th, of course … which you state is one of the bes. It was one of the better books, too … maybe THE best.

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