Sunday, November 21, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (***1/2)

Directed by David Yates


It's weird to tag on to a phenomenon as late as I have with the Harry Potter films. Only within the last twelve months have I seen all the films that came before this year's Deathly Hallows Part I, and for the first time I've come to realize what all the fuss was about. It's easy to dismiss the decision to break up the last story of the series into two parts as shrewd money laundering by greedy studio heads who look to squeeze as much as they can from enthusiastic Potter maniacs (and - still waiting on the second half - you could still make that assumption if you well wish). I wouldn't go that far, since it's obvious that the splitting into two parts has allowed a dedication to J.K. Rowling's prose that was not in any of the previous Harry Potter films.

Things are about as dark as ever for Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his pals Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). The Ministry of Magic, as well as Hogwarts School of Magic, have been taken over by Voldemort and his band of dark magic minions. In a cryptic meeting led by Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the Ministry of Magic discuss their main goal: find and kill Harry Potter. More specifically, Voldemort wishes to finish off Harry himself. We can only guess how much bad karma Harry has built up amongst these people, as Voldemort goes as low as to snap Lucious Malfoy's wand in half during the tempestuous discussion. He's not messing around this time.

As for Harry, he's finally been abandoned by his burdensome muggle family, the Dursleys, and sits in fear of returning to his world of magic since everyone there either hopes to kill him, or report him to the Ministry to be killed. But then the group of the usual suspects - including Ron & Hermione, as well as Hagrid (Eddie Coltrane), Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), and the rambunctious Weasley twins (James & Oliver Phelps) - come to Harry's muggle home and decide to escort him on the very dangerous journey through the menacing Death Eaters on their way to the wizarding world. Their trip is quite the tumultuous one when the Death Eaters are tipped off about their arrival and not everyone makes it across free of scars.

With Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, appearing occasionally in flashbacks) out of the picture, the three young wizards drop out of Hogwarts while Harry plots as to how to destroy the remaining Horcruxes and bring down Voldemort's newly established reign of power. When Death Eaters attack the wedding of one of the Weasley sons, the three take a port key into an isolated wilderness where they can hide away and further plan how they can find and destroy the Horcruxes. They discover that they must find the lost sword of Gryffindor to destroy them, but drama bubbles between the three (as they are now mature young adults) as they bicker amongst themselves and have frightening meetings with Death Eaters that come across their path.

I'm not totally sure how much a non-obsessive Potter fan could appreciate Deathly Hallows Part I. The film totally ignores anyone who may be introducing themselves to the series, listing off characters at the film's start with lightning rapidity. But I guess if you decide to start following a film series on the seventh film, confusion is what you deserve. As we trudge toward the end, Deathly Hallows Part I is a methodical film that moves drearily, as if it knows that it has an entire second movie to fall back on. That being said, it is incredibly dense and has an attention to detail that no other Potter film has been able to approach before. Say what you will about dividing the final chapter, it allows them to make very careful storytelling decisions that lead to some compelling revelations of character.

As the story has unfolded, the Potter tale has gotten darker and darker with each film, and Deathly Hallows Part I continues that trend (one could only hope that the second part coming up in July of 2011 isn't just thirty minutes of action followed by a Lord of the Rings style epilogue of joyous family making). Aside from the dangerous trip to the wizarding world at the start, we have snake attacks, knife-wielding witches, and the unexpected ends of certain characters that seemed invincible. More then anything, it's emotional pull stings hard, as the relationship between Harry and his two friends reach all types of awkwardness (including a **SPOILER ALERT** CGI make session between Harry and Hermione, which, while passionate, is a lot more innocent then it sounds).

I could probably fill this entire review just by naming all of the magnificent English actors who appear in the Harry Potter series - many of which are in this film. Helena Bonham Carter, Bill Nighy, John Hurt, and Timothy Spall, just to name a few I haven't already mentioned (and let's not forget Richard Harris, who would have certainly reprised his role as Dumbledore, had he not died after the second film). But it's the performances of Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint that really stand out here. The young movie stars always had moments amateurism in their performances as the three wizards in training. Of course, it doesn't helped that they were surrounded by a superfluous amount of veteran acting talent, but that problem doesn't present itself here. It seems their talents have fully bloomed finally and their comfort level with the characters at this points allow their acting to flourish. One things that should be mentioned: the continued superb work from Ralph Fiennes as the one who should not be named, really giving the noseless beast a vicious cadence that can occasionally come off as charming.

After Part II is released next summer, it'll be strange to think that the decade of Potter has finally come to an end. The books have been finished for a great while, but it's almost uncanny how much the films themselves have evolved over the last ten years. Deathly Hallows Part I does not have the unbridled thrills of 2004's The Prisoner of Azakaban, nor does it possess the overlying gravitas of 2005's Goblet of Fire. But it does contain the heavy burden of being the final piece of this story, and it takes that responsibility very seriously. I would say with great confidence that splitting Deathly Hallows in two was a great storytelling decision (whether or not that was the true inspiration for the split, once again, is up to you), and a decision that Peter Jackson should have thought of when making Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. There's a lot of story to be told here, and this ensures that no Potter fans will miss an ounce of it.

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