Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

There is a point not too far into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 where Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) informs Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) that everything going on, the sacrifices being made, the world falling into darkness, isn't only about him. This is a sentiment backed-up by the rest of the film. Harry might still be the most important character, but he's certainly not the only character.

There are several telling differences here. The first scene in the film doesn't involve Harry at all, but Hermoine (Emma Watson) and the difficult choice she makes with respect to her "Muggle" parents (Ian Kelly, Michelle Fairley). If this dramatic opening isn't enough to clue you in we're in for a far darker Harry Potter then scene directly following will leave you no doubt.

Rather than give us an opening with our hero the film instead showcases the villain. Throughout the series most of what we know about Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) comes from stories we've been told, flashbacks, and short snippets. Now that he's fully restored, and Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is dead, the series allows Fiennes to spread his wings and give us a villain that's more flesh-and-blood than ominous whispers. For the last two films to work this is a necessary choice, and director David Yates gives the character time to breathe. This is a villain to be feared.

Voldemort's ascension to power is in full-swing here. He's infiltrated the Ministry of Magic through his agents (Alan Rickman, Carolyn Pickles, Helena Bonham Carter, Helen McCrory, Jason Isaacs, Timothy Spall) and returned the magic community to the harsher "pure-blood" philosophy complete with propaganda pamphlets, the hunting down of "half-blood" witches, and several thousand wanted posters for one Harry Potter.

Even the Muggle world isn't safe from Voldemort's attacks as his agents become emboldened, attacking people in broad daylight and in public settings. We're not trapped in Hogwarts with this film and that really does give the characters new opportunities, and an entire world, to explore.

The story kicks in with its first big action sequence as Harry Potter is transported from Number 4, Privet Drive by his friends and protectors (Brendan Gleeson, James Phelps, Oliver Phelps, Mark Williams, George Harris, Natalia Tena, David Thewlis) in an attempt to hide him from Voldemort's minions. The air battle is one of the film's better action pieces, especially since it includes Hagrid's (Robbie Coltrane) flying motorcycle. Once they are finally separated from the rest of Harry's protectors, Harry, Ron and Hermoine set out with their mission: to find and destroy the remaining horcruxes imbued with fragments of Voldemort's soul.

Those who have been clamoring for a five hour Harry Potter movie may finally get their wish. Part 1 is half that time, and leaves quite a bit to be resolved in the series finale. Yates certainly takes his time here. The seventh Harry Potter film is by far the most character driven (and consequently the least plot driven) of the franchise. The frustration felt by the characters inaction only works because the film takes the time to show us how unsure and lost these characters really are. It's paced much more like a LoTR film than the other Harry Potter movies. There's more than a little aimless wandering in the wilderness here.

One of my favorite sequences takes place between Harry and Harmoine in their small refuge in the darkened forest. The pair take a short break, turn on the radio and dance. It's a reminder that as weighty as the expectations are on these kids they are still kids, and for a all too brief moment get to behave that way. Due to the time constraints of the other films such a scene wouldn't have the necessary weight (if they were included at all), but here it works wonderfully.

If you haven't read the final book you'll have to wait almost until the end of Part 1 for an explanation of what the "Deathly Hallows" are, which is told in an animated sequence as Hermoine reads the tale from a storybook. The animation works quite well and it turns out to be just the right choice on how to impart the importance of the tale to our characters.

Although I enjoyed the film I do have a small list of complaints. The first involves the very odd CGI sequence of Ron facing his worst fears. Although plot-wise the scene makes perfect sense, the execution and the look of the CGI is just doesn't work. And, just to annoy me it seems, we also have two chase scenes which involve heavy use of the shaky cam. The worst of these is an extended sequence in the woods late in the movie which gets so bad at times it is nearly impossible to see what is happening. I do have one or two other minor quibbles, but they involve scenes late in the film and I don't want to spoil things for those who haven't read the book or have forgotten large parts of it (like me).

Fans of the film will see several returning characters in small roles as the film builds on what's already been established so far. Those new to the series may feel a bit lost, but seeing the seventh part of a series first isn't exactly a wise move.

Once such idea recycled for great effect is the use of the Polyjuice Potion which allows three grown-up actors (Sophie Thompson, Steffan Rhodri, David O'Hara) to play our main characters through one of the film's most important sequences. Aside from being humorous the entire bit is excellently handled as the actors give just the right looks, shrugs, and mannerisms. It really feels like Harry, Ron, and Hermoine are trapped in their bodies.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is certainly darker in tone. Not everyone will survive, and we're finally given a truly depressing ending (unlike Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire which immediately following the funeral for Cedric Diggory went into happy "see you next year" sequence). The film, as expected, leaves much unfinished. The search for the remaining horcuxes and the final battle between Harry Potter and Voldemort's will have to wait. If Part 2 is as good as Part 1 I think this will make a fine conclusion to the series.

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