Review: ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One’
The Beginning of the End
Friday, November 19, 2010
It's been a ten-year journey but the end is almost here for Harry Potter and his friends. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" (opening November 19 throughout San Diego) adapts the first half of J.K. Rowling's final book.
If you have never seen a "Harry Potter" film, don't start with this one. The film is designed for fans that have been following the story since the beginning and there is no recap or helpful summing up of the story till now. The film jumps in as if there has been no time between "HP 6.0" and "HP 7.1." That's a good thing in terms of running time -- since the film clocks in at 155 minutes and any recap would have extended that length even further -- but bad if you are joining the party late.
"The Deathly Hallows" picks up with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) on the run from the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Voldemort has already had Snape (Alan Rickman) assassinate Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) in the previous installment of "HP," "The Half-Blood Prince." Now he wants young Harry killed as well. So the film begins with Voldemort continuing to expand his reign of terror. As the posters suggest: "Nowhere is safe."
The trio of friends flee to the remotest locations they can find. They are also trying to figure out how to destroy the "Horcruxes" (I needed to have this explained to me; they are enchanted objects containing fragments of Voldemort's soul or something like that). To a non-Potter aficionado, the Horcrux (can they be singular?) that Harry ends up with seems to function a bit like the Ring in "Lord of the Rings" – it casts a somber cloud over those who possess it and makes them behave in ways unlike themselves. At one point it even tries to create a rift among the friends by planting seeds of doubt and suspicion. This results in Ron seeing an apparition of Harry and Hermione in a naked embrace and -- gasp -- kiss. This scene that had a few of the midnight fans I spoke to singing the praises of lovely Ms. Watson -- even though her silvery nakedness looked pretty much all CGI. And since I mentioned "LOTR" and CGI, let me just mention that the CGI-ed character of Dobby does call to mind Gollum even though they possess very different personalities.
As Hermione says at one point, they are very much alone and on their own this time round. They have people willing to help but not always nearby to provide immediate assistance or advice. It is also a sign of their growing maturity that they are being left to make their own choices and decisions. But I wish this were played up better. This installment continues the trend to a darkening tone.
The final book in the Potter series has been divided into two films. This seems more a marketing ploy to extend the franchise and rake in more money than an artistic choice designed to cover the material better. This seventh film feels padded and repetitious as Harry and friends are continually running, setting up camp, and then fleeing again. The extra time doesn't seem put to good use developing themes and characters more fully. There's a lot of time spent sitting around worrying but not much time letting characters mature. And there's a lot of movement from place to place but not really much action. This is a film that does not stand well on its own. It is very much a piece in a larger whole. So for the diehard fans, the 9-month wait for the film to wrap it all up will probably feel like an eternity.
The strength of the Potter films for me has always been the cast. The young leads (who are not quite so young any more) are appealing and talented. Then they are supported by a stellar cast of veteran actors that reads like a who's who of British cinema. We have, in addition to Fiennes, Bill Nighy, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs, David Thewlis, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Imelda Stauton, Alan Rickman, Julie Walters, Rhys Ifan, and Robbie Coltrane. Did I leave anyone out?
The cast is spot on and a constant delight. But it's a shame that Bonham Carter and Rickman, who are such delicious fun, are barely given any screen time. I want more of Rickman's Snape -- he's one of the main reasons I keep coming back! There's evil hovering over the film but it’s a kind of broad generic evil -- ominous and heavy but without any personality. Giving the likes of Rickman and Bonham Carter more to do on screen could have livened up this sequel. Director David Yates has a remarkable cast and yet he allows so little time for them to act. Instead he treats them more like props to be moved around. I think the assumption is that we have read the books and know who each of these characters is and therefore they need no further development. For Potterphiles that's fine but for the rest of us we could benefit from more fleshing out of the supporting characters.
Yates is a capable craftsman but not an inspired filmmaker. He gets things done but without much flair. A lot happens in this film yet it manages to feel a bit dull and static. For a film about magic and fantastical things, Yates invests the film with very little cinematic magic. I miss the inspired touch of directors like Guillermo Del Toro or Terry Gilliam or Hayao Miyazaki (although he comes from animation).
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One" (rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality) pleased the Potter fans I spoke with. To those of us who are only casual acquaintances with the young wizard, this film fails to excite. It moves the story forward with a plodding determination but it doesn't stop to remind us why we care about these characters and their fate. Characters pass through so quickly and in such unmemorable fashion (some even perish off screen) that it almost seems a waste to have so many good actors on board. But that said I have invested so much time in this franchise that I do want to see it through till the end an still enjoyed enough of this one to make it worth checking out. (But of course I know that nothing I say will actually make a dent in the box office for this film.)
Companion viewing: " Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "The Lord of the Rings," "Excalibur"