Saturday, November 20, 2010
TEFB REVIEW: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1
Directed by David Yates
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
This is a Harry Potter film for the fans. After ten years, the franchise delivers the beginning of the end - part one of the adaptation of JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It's a film that doesn't ease newbies and people unfamiliar with the Potter universe into the story (although technically the films long ago stopped catering to those people anyway), and instead treats those who have been paying attention for a decade to a rich and dramatic experience. This is a film that is for those individuals who watched the first film as a wide-eyed, innocent young child, grew up with the sequels over the years, discovered, like Harry and his friends, that while life is magical it can also be depressing and dangerous, and are now entering life for the first time on their own. This is an (young) adult film - leave your little brothers or sisters home with their stuffed hippogriffs. There's nothing for them here.
Though the inexperienced would most likely be lost coming cold into the seventh film in a franchise of eight, it wouldn't be difficult to get the general impression of what's been going on in Harry's world, if not the specifics. Summarily: the world has gone to hell. Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), Harry's mortal enemy, has returned for good and is instituting a tyrannical form of rule in the wizarding world. Purging the land of all muggle (humans without magical powers) born wizards and witches, Voldemort and his followers (referred to as Death Eaters) launch a massive manhunt for Harry Potter and his friends. Meanwhile, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are not only on the run, but also on the hunt for Voldemort's Horcruxes (items that Voldemort has stored pieces of his soul in). In order to destroy Voldemort, they must destroy the Horcruxes.
Again, the film doesn't do much to school newcomers to the story, characters (both major and minor), and events, but at this point in the franchise that's not a problem. It's not a problem because it gives the filmmakers room to dig deep into Harry and his friends, and explore the fierce and unforgiving world that is young adulthood.
The best part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is the care that director David Yates has put into portraying the changing dynamic between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. There's a long section of the film in which the three friends are doing nothing but camping and traveling. What could have been a real slog to sit through (it's a slog to read, I can tell you that much) is turned into a series of ever-increasing moments of tension, with Ron's jealousy and Harry's ego creating friction between the two. The characters live in a world where magic is no longer fun and exciting, but dangerous and deadly, and it's almost heartbreaking to see the three of them becoming cynical and losing hope. At one point, Hermione suggests to Harry that they stop running and hiding, and simply stay where they are, protected by magical enchantments, and grow old together. It's a touching and bittersweet moment, and one that really captures how dark and emotionally draining the film is as a whole.
But it's not all gloom and doom in Potter-land. Yates has built-in some of the funniest moments of the franchise into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. Most of the yucks come from secondary characters, such as George and Fred Weasley, or from Dobby the House Elf (who looks better as a CG creation than he did in The Chamber of Secrets and is also far less annoying), but there are a few moments of levity from our main trio as well. Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint have become solid dramatic actors, but also have developed nice senses of comedic timing as well. There's also a nice little moment mid-camping sequence, where Harry and Hermione, after a dramatic exit from Ron, dance to Nick Cave's "O Children." It's a happy, slightly up-lifting scene that's unlike any that has come in the franchise before, and it's a nice display of how much more mature these films have become (thematically, tonally, and technically) over the years.
Although by no means an action film, Deathly Hallows Part 1 does feature its fair share of tense and wonderfully directed action sequences. Yates has mastered this aspect of these films, and the battles in this one are some of the best the series has seen (the only exception being a last act chase through the woods, which features far too much shaky cam and frame-dropping. Thankfully that's the only misstep action wise). Magic has never seemed so completely destructive when in the wrong hands, and many scenes that begin benignly explode violently into fire and brimstone.
Speaking of violence, this film is almost aggressively so. My suggestion above to leave the little kids home shouldn't be dismissed. There are images littered throughout Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 that will no doubt trouble any child under the age of ten. One character is tortured and the word "mudblood" carved into her arm. Another has an arm almost torn off, and the make-up effect had even me squirming in my seat. Young children would also likely be upset by the sheer nastiness of the creep-factor in the film as well. One particular sequence features a snake shedding a costume of human skin. It's a fantastically dark film that doesn't hold back on the grotesque and upsetting.
While we spend most of the film with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, we do get to chill with some fine supporting cast as well (a staple of the Harry Potter films). Bill Nighy has a small role as minister of magic Rufus Scrimgeour. Jason Isaacs returns as Luscious Malfoy, and Brendan Gleeson is Mad-Eye Moody. The biggest (and most grin-inducing, for me anyway) casting surprise was Peter Mullan as Yaxley, a Death Eater with a braided pony tail to end all braided pony tails. Mullan has become one of my favorite character actors, and although he has a very small amount of screen time in this film, he makes an impression as an evil and lethal minion of the Dark Lord.
It was rumored that the filmmakers, while making Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, knew they were going to split the film into two sections, but had no idea where they were going to end the first and begin the second. As Part 1 progresses, it's obvious that was the case. The last forty minutes of the film simply feel like the search for a cut-off point. It's a long rush to find an ending, and it's the film's only downfall. While it's ambitious that the film is structured the way it is, it's also exhausting - not because of length, but because of content. So much occurs during the last act that it's like the film was attempting to make up for the wandering, slow midsection of the film. Then the film abruptly stops. It's an odd move, but one that makes sense, and since the film does a terrific job of keeping the audience interested in what will happen next (even when it slows to a crawl), it's going to be a long eight months for Part 2.
Overall, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is fairly impressive, and a huge step forward for a franchise that has been taking mostly small, shaky ones for awhile now. Not since the Lord of the Rings films has there been a fantasy movie that feels like our characters are in true danger, there is so much at stake, and the world could implode at any moment. This is an impactful film, and if the filmmakers nail the second half as well as JK Rowling nailed the last half of her book, the Harry Potter franchise could end up being the most impressive series of films cinema has ever seen.