Nov 20, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 [12A]

DIR: David Yates
CAST: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint,
Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter

For me, the Harry Potter film series came of age in the last act of Mike Newell’s entry HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE. With the single line “Kill the spare”, even before he had manifested as Ralph Fiennes, the series established the seriousness of the threat posed by Voldemort. Since then, David Yates has built on that moment with two films of increasing thematic and visual darkness, both of which seemed to be part of a long march to both all out war and a moment of destiny. The challenge now, over the two films that make up the adaptation of JK Rowling’s final Potter book, is to draw the threads together, to bring Harry to the dark place where the book climaxes. Unfortunately, DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 is only a partial success, and as a whole it is Yates’ least impressive piece of Pottery yet (though, to be fair, that stacks it up against two of the best blockbusters of the past decade). That said, when the film works - and for large parts of the running time it does work - it is just as thrilling as those that have preceded it (at least since PRISONER OF AZKABAN).

It would be fair to describe the arc of this epic story as Shakespearean. Thus far the same cannot really be said of the performances from the films young leads. This is, though, just one of the many aspects in which this series has been on a consistent upward curve, and, perhaps seeing how important this film is, and how much it relies on them, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have all massively raised their game here, turning in performances that really dig into the emotions of these characters and the way the dark places they find themselves take a toll on them in a much deeper way than ever before. There’s actually less dialogue here than in most of the other films, and it is often in the quieter moments that the films works really well. This is especially felt in the two scenes added for the film, which didn’t appear in the book. One is a tense moment in which, despite all the protective enchantments they’re using, Harry and Hermione are nearly discovered when a band of hunters smell Hermione’s perfume, this is a great moment, because it injects a real and present sense of threat into a film that often lacks it. The other, which has apparently been divisive, is a brief scene in which Harry and Hermione dance together in their tent in the woods. It’s a lovely scene; a much needed touch of lightness amidst the drama, and also a moment that says a great deal about the characters connection to one another.

Though David Yates has described this as a road movie being a Harry Potter film and thus a big, expensive, special effects laden blockbuster, it’s also heavy on action scenes. This is the first time in the series that spellcasting has felt really threatening. You may have to have read the books or followed closely the previous films to know exactly what each spell does, but what can’t be mistaken is the way the scenes are now executed; there’s none of the dueling of old here, these are down and dirty gunfights, with potshots being taken at every opportunity and real consequences for missing. It’s a change perhaps most clearly signaled by the use of a fight trainer, rather than a dance teacher, to work with the actors for spellcasting scene this time round. This added violence does mean that, even more so than Yates’ previous Potter films, this one is not for the youngest audiences. The action scenes are thrilling though, hitting an early high with a brilliant chase as Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and Harry try to escape from pursuing Death Eaters on Hagrid’s motorcycle. The chase goes up in the air, the wrong way up a motorway, and through the Dartford tunnel… upside down. The effects are seamless and the whole thing is breathlessly exciting. There are several more large scale action scenes, all of them excellent, but the film really becomes effective towards the end, when the violence gets personal. Hermione’s torture is genuinely upsetting, thanks to the effective performances of Helena Bonham-Carter (manic as ever as Bellatrix Lestrange), Watson and Grint. It is, though, the one scene where I got the feeling that Yates was holding back visually, probably for the sake of preserving the 12A rating.

Talking of visuals, one of the enduring pleasures of this series has been its subtly shifting style, from Chris Columbus’ cartoony PHILOSOPHER’S STONE to the grittier tone introduced in Alfonso Cauron’s PRISONER OF AZKABAN and refined by each subsequent film. The visual approach over the years seems to have been to darken the world along with the stories, and Yates and cinematographer Eduardo Serra have certainly done that here. The images are often so washed out that you could mistake them for black and white, making the spells that fly from various wands stand out, adding to their implied danger, and there is a slight grain to much of the film, which gives it a more immediate and real feel. It’s a beautifully designed film, with a lot of thought clearly going into every frame. I especially liked the stylized vision that Ron has when he’s supposed to destroy the horcrux; the way that Harry and Hermione appear too smooth, just a little unreal, and the stunning animated sequence that reveals the significance of the Deathly Hallows. The only slight downside on the visuals is the presence of a few shots that seem to have been included purely to exploit the thankfully aborted 3D conversion (which, by the way, would have rendered a film this dark completely unwatchable).

So, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 has strong acting from its leads, a selection of exciting action scenes, gorgeous visuals, flawless special effects and even manages to be touching in places. So why am I not raving about it? Well, quite simply, it’s two and a half hours long, and though a great deal of the film works brilliantly it is also prone, thanks to adapting only half of JK Rowling’s (admittedly massive) novel, to longeurs. Okay, it’s hardly NEW MOON, but this film doesn’t actually move the overarching story on a great deal, and there are several more moping in the woods scenes than we really need. There are often long gaps between the vital plot points, and often those gaps aren’t filled with much more than the third of fourth iteration of the same argument between Harry and Ron, which can be tiresome, however well played it is. Much more damaging is that this film, despite taking place almost entirely with Harry, Ron and Hermione on the run, lacks the feel so expertly built in the previous two entries, of an ever encroaching darkness. Voldemort (Fiennes, still exuding creepiness form every pore), off on his own quest, feel a much less potent threat this time out and that march to war seems far off. It’s an absence that makes this film much less engaging than the last two.

While the leading performances are excellent, several of the new additions to the cast work much less well. Bill Nighy is a particular let down as the minister for magic. He simply turns up and does yet another variation of the one and only Bill Nighy performance (Welsh version). This is a real problem, because the Harry Potter films have created a huge, all encompassing, world, and Nighy’s scenes pop that bubble for a moment because, oh look, it’s Bill Nighy. Rhys Ifans is also disappointing as Xenophilius Lovegood, failing to capture the same lovable eccentricity that the wonderful Evanna Lynch manages as Luna, instead coming off as an irritant in a wig.

The two part structure is a difficult circle to square, and I suspect that the story would be better served as a single four hour epic, but I understand why Warner Brothers can’t release a four hour movie for eleven and twelve year olds, and trying to get the whole book into a single film would have been an almost impossible task. That said, David Yates has largely done a good job here, and particularly with where he splits the film. It ends on a surprisingly affecting loss, and on a moment of implied triumph, which acts as the best possible trailer for Part 2. This film may not quite stand up to comparisons with the two that have preceded it, but that’s not to say that it isn’t a great entertainment. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 is an uncommonly good blockbuster, and when viewed alongside Part 2 it is likely to draw together into a seriously impressive piece of epic storytelling.

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