Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I: David Yates Casts A Dark Spell Over the Potterverse

To put it in Harry Potter terms, David Yates is the best thing since butterbeer. Ever since the fifth film, he really hasn’t taken a single misstep– the films have stopped focusing on the magic and instead turn their focus towards the coming-of-age of the young wizards. Yates isn’t afraid to take the films in a dark direction, and this film may be the darkest one yet. The Deathly Hallows’ episodic nature makes this film not quite as magical as the last two, and since it’s only half a film, it feels (understandably) like an incomplete experience, but it’s still an exciting, moody entry which makes next summer’s conclusion the most anticipated film of 2011.

It’s Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)’s seventh year at Hogwarts– but Hogwarts is not Harry’s destination this year. He and his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) have gone into hiding because they have become targets of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his Death Eaters ever since the death of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). Keeping up? Hold on tight. Harry leaves his home with the protection of Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and the Order of the Phoenix, made up of Lupin (David Thewlis), Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), Tonks (Natalia Tena), and others, when they are attacked by the Death Eaters, made up of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), and others, after being tipped off by Dumbledore’s murderer and new headmaster of Hogwarts, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Meanwhile, the Ministry of Magic, once headed by Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy), has been taken over by Death Eaters as well, including Pius Thicknesse (Guy Henry), Albert Runcorn (David O’Hara), and the returning villainess Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton).

Everyone and their cousin (and every relevant adult actor from the United Kingdom) is looking for Harry, so he and his friends run out into the woods to hide. While attending the wedding of Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson) and Fleur Delacour (Clemence Poesy) at the Weasley home, they are forced to flee and hide in the woods, completely separated from other wizards. While in hiding, they try to determine how to find and destroy the remaining horcruxes a.k.a. pieces of Voldemort’s soul. This leads them to several places, including a daring break-in at The Ministry of Magic, an encounter with elves at the home of Harry’s dead godfather, and a visit to Godric’s Hollow where Harry’s parents died. Finally, they seek out Xenophilius Lovegood (Rhys Ifans) who tells them the story of the Deathly Hallows. How do the Deathly Hallows play into the horcrux hunt? Who will survive and who will die?

Because there’s no Hogwarts, and because the story arc is destined to not end in any film labeled “Part I,” the film lacks a clear through-line within its story. It’s not really the film’s fault– for the first half of this story, Harry, Ron, and Hermione make very few pertinent discoveries and make very little progress. It’s the main reason why the ending is so bleak, but it’s a contributing factor towards the film not keeping the same level of excitement that the previous two did. Another difficulty regarding the plot here is every character is back, and so many events are transpiring all over the film’s world at once, so you get the feeling that the movie is taking a lot of time to explain things to you– who the characters are, what’s going on while Harry’s in hiding, etc. Every time an old character or new character has a prominent introduction, you get the sense that either (a) this character will have something revealed about them later in the movie, or (b) this character will die. Yates does his best, but it’s hard to disguise all of the seams when there’s so much that must be crammed into the 150 minutes of this installment.

Fortunately, this series is also crammed with nearly every interesting British actor alive. One could also say a flaw of the film is giving us hints of so many terrific actors that then never appear again. Brendan Gleeson gives us a couple of good laughs early on as Mad-Eye Moody, and David Thewlis as Lupin has a nice moment early after an attack… but after the first fifteen minutes, we really don’t see either of them again. Snape is an integral figure going forward, but Snape only appears in one scene, and Alan Rickman is maybe the most compelling actor in the series at this point– I can’t wait to have more of him in the next installment. Rhys Ifans, Jason Isaacs, and Bill Nighy all have a very nice scene or two, and James and Oliver Phelps as the Weasley twins walk away with every scene they’re in, providing much needed comic relief. All three of the main actors give nice performances as well, perhaps their best yet. Grint in particular, who in previous films mostly was used for laughs, gets some very nice serious moments here.

Though the film is crammed and episodic, leave it to Yates to make it work. Some of the “episodes” are among the best in the series. After establishing that the entire government has fallen to the dark side, a break-in to the government headquarters by Harry, Ron, and Hermione is the most exciting and funny sequence in the movie. They are all disguised as members of the Ministry– what happens when their co-workers recognize them, or their loved ones are in trouble with the powers that be? A visit to the village where Harry’s parents were killed is menacing and suspenseful. The tale of the Deathly Hallows, as read by Hermione, is depicted through highly stylized puppetry– an unexpected and brilliant moment. Yet with all of this, the heart of the film is the coming-of-age of our teen heroes; it’s why the previous film, which balanced action and angst perfectly, was one of the best movies of last year. There’s less opportunity for character development with so many events to cover, but two moments stand out. A dance shared between Harry and Hermione (not in the book) is a lovely moment which acknowledges that a boy and girl teenager alone in the woods for months, regardless of whether they like each other, will experience moments of awkward sexual tension. They leave the dance on a sweet yet platonic note.

Finally, when the horcrux is opened to Ron, his nightmares are all revealed– Voldemort tells him his mother wanted a daughter, the girl he loves would never choose him over Harry Potter, The Chosen One, and Ron is forced to watch an image of Harry and Hermione, naked, making out. These nightmares relate to every teen… every person, really. We want to be loved, we want to do what’s right, and we want to not let our friends down, even when times are tough. That’s what makes this series so valuable– the teens are flawed and get mad at one another, yet they find ways to claw it out and see things through. Yates knows audiences don’t relate to deities or images of perfection as our heroes, so he emphasizes the dark thoughts, the brooding, and the flaws of Harry and Ron in particular over the last three films. On its own, this movie is a perfectly enjoyable and dark fantasy tale, with a few outstanding sequences, but it won’t stand on its own until the second half can be viewed. If anyone can deliver a four-star conclusion to this series packed with imagination and suspense, it’s Yates. There are several Part Is which have worked well on their own but worked better attached… I have a feeling this is one of those entries. While it won’t fully satisfy your moviegoing need for a film with an arc and a conclusion, it sets us up for what will likely be the most magical film of 2011.

~ by russellhainline on November 28, 2010.

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