Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I Movie Review

Bill Nighy as Minister of Magic presents the items bequeathed by Dumbledore in his will
As the Harry Potter book series progressed, they became denser, packed with more and more material. As such, as the films have trudged onward they’ve had to make various omissions in order to fulfill a kid-friendly movie running time. They’ve also grown to be darker as the full weight of the power of Voldemort and Harry’s predicament comes to bear. The result has been a series of films that I imagine would be virtually incomprehensible to any viewer who hasn’t read the books. I say this because I’ve often had to try to refresh my memory of missing details from the book to aid my comprehension of the story of the screen.

My hope was that the splitting of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two parts would resolve this problem. Without a doubt, Steve Kloves has done a fine job of drafting a story that makes sense for Part I, but so many of the details the characters use to make connections are given little more than a cursory glance.

As most everyone probably knows already, Deathly Hallows picks up where the last movie left off: Dumbledore is dead by Snape’s treacherous hand; Voldemort is building strength and power; Harry, Ron, and Hermione are about to embark on a mission to find the remaining pieces of Voldemort’s soul to destroy them.

In previous installments, when characters were killed (Serius Black; Cedric Diggory) it has felt somehow incongruous with my view of this as a series of kids’ stories. Half-Blood Prince started the real turn toward subject matter that could be disturbing to younger viewers, culminating in the death of the beloved headmaster. This first part of the final chapter continues that trend with Voldemort killing at will and newspaper headlines proclaiming the deaths of Muggles (non-wizarding folk) around the country. In that respect the movies have (because the books always have) reflected the transition and growth of responsibility through the teenage years. As Harry has gotten older, his actions have had greater consequences.

Given the severity of the situation both within and without the wizarding world I would have expected to feel more frightened for the young heroes, more anticipatory of what was to come, more dread at Voldemort’s regained power. Instead I felt, quite frankly, kind of bored watching this film. Maybe it’s that the Harry Potter films seem to be produced with a cookie cutter. They are machine-made productions designed predominantly as visual representations (as opposed to adaptations) of the books. They’re like novelizations of movies in reverse. They add nothing except profits for the franchise.

But these are general comments about the series. As for this specific chapter, there’s little that differentiates it from the last film. David Yates’ direction is brisk, his focus much more on the action than the character development demonstrated by Chris Columbus in the first two or Alfonso CuarĂ³n in the third. Visually it’s a far cry from the CGI employed for the first film, but still nothing compared to the third which relied much more on authentic effects than computers. The CGI tends to muddy the action. It causes directors to go for broke and make the action as fast as possible. When you’re working with animation, why not? Interestingly, action sequences in animated films look and work much better, so much so that I wonder what would happen if a skilled animation director were called in for a CGI dependent live action film.

At the very least, Part I is interesting as a compendium of famous British actors. It probably sports more famous faces than even Gosford Park did. Most of the actors who’ve made appearances over the years have returned, even if briefly: of course there’s Ralph Fiennes as The Dark Lord and Alan Rickman back as Snape – now headmaster at Hogwart’s. There’s also Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, now cowering before Voldemort; Helena Bonham Carter as the sycophantic Bellatrix Lestrange; Julie Walters as the Weasly clan mother; Imelda Staunton reprising her role as the fastidious Dolores Umbridge; Brendan Gleeson as Mad Eye Moody; Richard Griffiths; Fiona Shaw, Michael Gambon (seen briefly as Dumbledore); Timothy Spall; John Hurt; David Thewlis; and Robbie Coltrane as the loveable half-giant Hagrid. Newcomers include Peter Mullan; Bill Nighy as the Minister of Magic and Rhys Ifans as Xenophilius Lovegood, father of Luna.

Surely just about anyone who loves the books and loves the actors playing the kids (Daniel Radcliffe; Emma Watson; Rupert Grint) will have no problem with the film. There’s likely to be the usual griping about “they left this out” and “they didn’t have enough of that character,” but ultimately it’s designed to entice, not to alienate fans of the series. And they can hardly fail at this point.

Yates and costume designer Jany Temime admirably attempt to draw out the parallels to Nazi Germany present in the books. As Voldemort takes more and more control, the Ministry of Magic veers more and more into a department designed to eliminate everyone who isn’t a “pureblood.” Officials in the Ministry are mostly clad in black leather jackets and boots that instantly call forth the Nazi SS and Hitler’s attempt to create a race of pureblooded Aryans.

Splitting Deathly Hallows into two parts is a bit of a double-edged sword in that it makes for more effective storytelling when the film makers have five hours to play with as opposed to two and a half, but it also has a bit of The Two Towers effect. By that I’m referring to the feeling I had after the second Lord of the Rings film that it was just passing time between the beginning and the conclusion. Deathly Hallows Part I ends, justifiably, on a note of non-resolution. Maybe there was no better way to make it feel like a complete film, but the result is a feeling of being cheated. I can’t help the unshakeable feeling that it’s a scheme to get double the money out of me if I want the whole story. Well, the Warner Brothers cash cow is about to die. This was a last gasp of desperation.

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