Friday, November 19, 2010
Movie review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
These are dark times for the wizarding world. (No, I mean REALLY dark.)
The first thing I want to tell you about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is that it's very, very dark.
I'm not referring to this episode's thematic darkness, which is indeed profound: Ominous events are being set into motion by the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes in cadaverous prosthetics, as usual) and his swelling tribe of minions (including seemingly everyone at the Ministry of Magic). No, I'm talking about how dark things actually appear onscreen — a poor film critic can barely perceive the white of the paper upon which to scribble down his notes.
Director David Yates returns to the wizarding film franchise after acquitting himself well in the last two Harry Potter episodes (2007's Order of the Phoenix and 2009's Half Blood Prince), this time recruiting cinematographer Eduardo Serra to do the filming. Serra shot Unbreakable for M. Knight back in 2000, and has since lensed such films as Girl with a Pearl Earring, Blood Diamond, and Defiance. His rule of thumb on this film seems to be: Take the exposure shown on your light meter and notch it down a couple of stops.
As for the story: Those wizards remaining steadfast to the humanistic principles espoused by the late Professor Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) — along with all those in declared support of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Dumbledore's friend and chief disciple — are preparing to make extreme personal sacrifices for the sake of their loyalty. Hermione (Emma Watson), for instance, casts a spell on her parents to erase her very existence from their memories — even excising her image from family photographs. (She decides this will be kinder than leaving them in anguish over her welfare during the perilous times to come.)
In the wake of Dumbledore's death, the forces of darkness have gathered at Malfoy Manor to plan their attack on the lone remaining focus of dissent: Harry Potter. Black-clad Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) arrives after the proceedings have already commenced, bringing news of a forthcoming attempt to transport Potter from his protected home to a yet-more-protected safe house beyond their ken. During the conference, former Hogwarts Professor of Muggle Studies Charity Burbage (Carolyn Pickles) hovers supine over the meeting table, ensnared in magical bonds. Given her progressive views toward wizard-muggle relations, her fate is liable to be a particularly grisly one...
Before leaving on their mission to locate and destroy the Horcruxes, Harry, Hermione, and Ron (Rupert Grint) have one more obligation to fulfill: a wedding at the Weasley home. Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson) is marrying Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy), with many of the leading Dumbledore/Potter supporters in attendance. The gathering might prove disastrous if Voldemort's forces were to ferret out its whereabouts.
A good part of the 146 minute runtime of Hallows: Part 1 is devoted to the desperate journey undertaken by Harry, Hermione, and Ron as they apport from one desolate locale to another in order to avoid detection by Voldemort's henchfolk. In the lonely and tedious interims between near-capture and perilous flight, the allies attempt to extract the last smidgen of meaning from a scant set of clues and curiosities left to them by Dumbledore.
It's a dark night of the soul for all of them, and it leads to a crisis of faith for Ron, who begins to question whether they're wasting their time — and their lives — in a hopeless quest. Beyond that, Ron also suspicions that Hermione's affection for him is being diverted towards everyone's favorite bespectacled golden boy, Harry, the "chosen one." Ron's self-doubt precipitates a showdown, leaving Harry and Hermione to continue their journey alone.
There are fabulous action sequences to be found in this episode as well, including a nail-biting infiltration of the Ministry of Magic — a facility which has the feel of the Nazi propaganda ministry at the height of Hitler's reign. And there's a return to Malfoy Manor near the end of the movie, which finds Harry and friends in dire straits indeed. Only through the intervention of an unexpected ally will they escape to complete their mission.
By far the most affecting sequence of the narrative comes during the grimmest of times for Harry and Hermione, as they struggle to keep their spirits up in the aftermath of Ron's departure. The radio has been set to a station pronouncing a litany of casualties in the struggle against Voldemort's forces; suddenly, a romantic tune wafts into their tent. Harry, recognizing a chance to escape from the drudgery and despair, takes Hermione by the hand and waltzes her around the dusty floor. You can see the tension and worry evaporating from their faces as the music takes hold. (You can also sense the dangerous attraction between them, as they separately consider the possibility of allowing their friendship to blossom into something more.) The song finishes, and it's back to puzzle solving — it's been only a momentary respite from their desperate circumstances, but it serves to restore their resolve.
Also memorable is a fabulously atmospheric (read: DARK) animated sequence, in which is told the Tale of the Three Brothers. This allegorical children's story (from The Tales of Beedle the Bard) explains the origin of a trio of powerful magical artifacts, presumed by most to be fantastical. But what if they actually existed?
Hallows: Part 1 draws to a close with a bittersweet goodbye to a true and selfless friend, and the spectacular revelation of a deadly new danger facing those who will carry on the fight. After nearly two-and-a-half hours, we're left wanting more.
My chief concern going into this penultimate Potter movie was that the filmmakers might be doing us an injustice by splitting up the last book into two chapters: a concern that proves, upon seeing the film, entirely groundless. For those who have followed along on the series of films (or read the books), Hallows: Part 1 delivers a satisfying beginning to the cathartic final act, set for a mid-July 2011 release.
Will it really have been just ten years since Harry Potter made his screen debut in Sorcerer's Stone? It seems like we've known him all our lives.