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Film Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010; Directed by David Yates)

Badass New Gods

David Yates’ next-to-last Potter film, recently released on DVD, strains against J.K. Rowling’s dodgy narrative pacing and the increasing weight of expected closure, but still finds time for hints of the poetic visual artistry that has made the last four franchise installments worthy enterprises.

Certainly, The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 suffers from a curse much worse than anything that comes out of a Death Eater’s wand: by its very design, it has no real ending. Hobbling the film series’ creative stride even more is the structure of Rowling’s novel; Harry’s first post-Hogwarts adventure (at least until the climax, which will take up much of Part 2), it has none of the comforting and easy progression that the advancing school year offered to the author. Without her ready-made scholastic year structure, Rowling’s already-overwrought plotting goes over the edge into a realm that is nearly inaccessible to the unindoctrinated Pothead. Her introduction of the monstrously complicated mythology of the titular Hallows takes up far too much time with slaved-over exposition, but because the Elder Wand at least is so key to the series’ conclusion, the film version can’t afford to ignore that part. That the plot’s incidents fall into a narrow-escapes deus ex machina (Weasley ex machina? Dobby ex machina?) pattern for much of Hallows doesn’t make screenwriter Steve Kloves’ job any easier, either.

It is a marvel, then, that this first film of the series finale is watchable at all, let alone slickly paced, attractively shot, and rather entertaining. Yates has to place tremendous trust in his central trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, as the cadre of veteran British thesps arrayed around them in previous installments mostly drops away for the majority of the film. The young actors have worn these characters like old jackets for several films now, but they’re pushed into newer territory and respond as best they can. Radcliffe knows how to brood and react to fresh new calamities (of which there are plenty), and he never lets you see the cracks. Watson’s Hermione is Rowling’s Hermione, hyper-competent but intermittently emotional; it’s clear by now that she’ll never surprise us as Radcliffe sometimes does, but then most diehards don’t want surprises when it comes to their beloved characters. If I don’t have much fondness for Ron Weasley, then it’s surely not the fault of Rupert Grint and his glorious shit-eating grin; there isn’t much time for humour in this serious corner of the Potterverse, but he’s able to provide a bit of it here and there.

If I drop this in the bowl of nuts, will it explode?

As mentioned, the all-star supporting cast slips in and out of the picture, but a few brief appearances are notable. Helena Bonham-Carter’s twisted spider woman Bellatrix Lestrange continues to sap the evil energy out of Ralph Fiennes’ cartoonish reptilian Voldemort, not to mention the increasingly haggard Malfoys. She’s such a thoroughly nasty piece of work that it feels as if nobody else has any business even trying to be bad when she’s in the room. Rhys Ifans isn’t quite eccentric enough as Xenophilius Lovegood, but he accomplishes his role with necessary aplomb, as does a scowling, peering, and underused Bill Nighy as the doomed Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour. And even the briefest appearances by Fred and George (the always-game James and Oliver Phelps), Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), Luna Lovegood (the expertly moony Evanna Lynch), and the final tribute to Mad-Eye Moody (the Prince of My Heart, Brendan Gleeson) go a long way.

The artistry at work all the way down this production continues to be top-notch, of course, and it’s obvious that Yates, Kloves and their expansive team try to put their mark on the proceedings when they have the chance. Some of the highlights of this effort include the haunting opening of Hermione removing herself from her parents’ memories for their own protection from the evil that stalks her, the sweeping, Romanticist landscapes through which our intrepid trio camps through most of the film, the sinuous animated telling of the history of the Deathly Hallows, and an amusing and gentle scene of Harry and Hermione finding some fleeting happiness dancing in their tent to Nick Cave’s “O Children”. The visual metaphors for the end of childhood innocence have multiplied as the series (itself one big honkin’ metaphor for the end of childhood innocence in the first place) has progressed, and the ones in this film are the among the most resonant that we’ve been given.

All wizards and Muggles will pay for my botched nose job!

But as my earlier qualifiers indicate, this film is not all resonance, or even particularly close to being so. There are, literally, five or even six narrow Disapparating escapes, followed by terse, moody scenes full of blather about Horcruxes and Hallows. The skin-of-their-teeth stuff does, eventually, cease to be all that exciting, and it’s hell on the film’s pacing. Harry’s glimpses into Voldemort’s movements are presented without much context, and there’s rarely much effort put into informing the uninitiated as to what they might mean. The climactic heroic sacrifice is impossibly maudlin, and is undercut by the sacrificed character’s absence from the last four movies. And Ron’s moment of doubt before destroying the Horcrux locket just goes horribly, utterly wrong. As if the moment didn’t already echo the temptation of Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring (the locket operates on our wilderness-bound partners much as the Ring does on Sam and Frodo on the road to Mordor), the filmmakers turn it into a similar green-tinted, CGI-overload cinematic low-point, complete with a naked macking H & H. Unlike any other moment since the Chris Columbus-directed opening chapters, this one just does not work.

But, really, much of the movie around it does work, if only intermittently with any of the soaring magical energy of, say, Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Newell’s similarly-pitched Goblet of Fire, or Yates’ own masterly Half-Blood Prince. Perhaps the heavy expository lifting of this final duo of films has now been handled, leaving the final installment to floor us with two-plus hours of sustained climax and satisfactory closure (though there will be no escaping Rowling’s vomitous 20-years-later epilogue, as Yates has confirmed). There was only so much anyone could do with the first half of Deathly Hallows and one must give credit where it’s due while also exercising due skeptical diligence.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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