Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1

Film Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Rhys Ifans, John Hurt.
Directed by: David Yates. Screenplay: Steve Kloves.

Dumbledore is dead, and Voldemort is on the verge of taking control of Magical Britain. Harry Potter and his friends must abandon the safety of Hogwarts as they set out to locate and destroy the mysterious Horcruxes, artefacts that are the key to defeating the Dark Lord once and for all. However, with no real plan, and in constant danger, they find themselves lost and alone. Answers may perhaps come with the secret of the Deathly Hallows, but finding them puts them in greater danger than ever before…

CONTAINS SPOILERS

Well, here it is. Harry Potter and the Road Trip of Gloom. ‘Darker and edgier’ is a label all too often applied to each instalment of the series, although mainly by the press rather than the films marketing department. This time though, the film opens with Bill Nighy’s gratuitously Scottish Minister for Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour, declaring that “These are dark times.” The film doesn’t get much more cheerful than this.­­­

In starting, I should point out that I am an unashamed fanboy of the Harry Potter series, both the books and the films (not quite so much as far as the videogames go, but that’s a separate issue). I shall try to be objective over the course of this review, but do be aware that there may be faults I will excuse or simply not notice. Equally, some bits may frustrate me but pass without question to non-fans.

The film begins well, with an affecting montage of the three leads with their respective families: Harry watching as the Dursleys flee Privet Drive without bidding him farewell, Ron standing moodily apart from the hustle and bustle of family life, and, most movingly, Hermione wiping her parents’ memories, erasing herself from their lives before leaving them behind, possibly forever. Before long, the spectacular action kicks off, with an intense chase through the skies of England, before arriving for a more relaxed stretch at the Burrow.

There is a bit of a sag here, and it’s hard to know who to blame. The characters are all convening at the Burrow for the wedding of Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacoeur, representing hope amidst the darkness. It’s just that we haven’t seen Fleur since Goblet of Fire, and Bill Weasley is only introduced maybe twenty minutes before the wedding, with one line to his credit. It does make it a little difficult to care about this break from the plot – although on the other hand, you could take this as an insight into Harry’s own feelings of impatience and fear. This stretch does give the film one of its funniest moments though, single handedly justifying the continued presence of the Weasley twins.

And then it’s off again, a panic fuelled flight into the middle of Muggle London that ramps up the paranoia in enjoyable fashion, with the first of several thrilling, brisk little duels. For the next hour or so, the film rarely stops to breath, with the lead trio hiding out in Grimmauld Place (which you may remember from Order of the Phoenix), and plot point after plot point being introduced, expanded upon or resolved. New characters are introduced – often chowing down on the scenery gleefully, the vast majority of the adult cast clearly there just to enjoy themselves – then abandoned in favour of the next stunt or pretty location. In truth, that sounds more critical than I intend to be, although it is absolutely accurate; the original book is a veritable doorstopper, with much debate as to whether it needed to be quite as long. Steve Kloves, faced with the unenviable task of trimming the fat into a decent screenplay – while at the same time appeasing the diehard fans of the books, who would prefer it if every character, scene and line of dialogue made it onto the screen – has done an admirable job. Many reviews have claimed that the film is incomprehensible to those who haven’t read the books; my mother, with who I saw the film, has not read the books and found herself perfectly able to follow proceedings (bar a brief moment when she had to enquire who a character was [Voldemort]). Once again, Kloves has trod a fine line and done a good job.

This is not to say that there are no writing mis-steps. There is one scene where Harry and Hermione, distraught after Ron has left the group in a fit of jealous rage, share a dance to the wireless. I would argue that it doesn’t really work through several interpretations – it comes out of nowhere, making little sense however touching it might be, but it is also a distinctly romantic scene. Given that Harry’s relationship with Ginny Weasley is woefully under-developed, I cannot help but feel that the time would have been better spent on that relationship. Harry and Hermione spend most of the film together; they do not need more scenes specially written for them. It must also be said that the entire camping section, particularly the span of time where Ron is off screen, is hardly the most invigorating bit of film (although Kloves was working at a disadvantage; the same could be said for the equivalent scenes in the book. The celluloid counterpart is at least shorter).

The film picks up again during the final third of the film, where the set pieces jump in once again. A walk through Godric’s Hollow, the village of Harry’s birth is both surprisingly moving and genuinely creepy, especially when the bizarre woman they meet turns out to be a giant snake in disguise. Those fortunate viewers who, unlike me, do not have a crippling fear of snakes may find this scene less scary, but I was burrowing into my seat. Then we get what we’ve all been waiting for, a beautifully shot scene where Ron returns to destroy a Horcrux with a sword he has plucked from a frozen lake (What Do You Mean It’s Not Symbolic?), followed by the story of the Deathly Hallows.

The story behind the titular artefacts is easily one of the stand out scenes of the entire series thus far, and possibly the best scene in the film. Rather than have Hermione read out the fairytale, Yates has created an astonishing shadow play, beautifully visualised and with a light touch that is lacking elsewhere in the film. I would argue that the two or three minutes spent on it are worth the entry price alone.

It is also the last calm moment of the film: in the aftermath of this, the trio are attacked by Death Eaters, chased through a forest, captured and taken to the extravagantly Gothic Malfoy Manor. The confident run of action reaches its peak in one of the few scenes from Yates films that really lets loose to show that yes, these wizards use magic, rather than a stick that might as well be a gun for all the difference it would make to the action. The film ends on a cliffhanger (as you might expect), after a scene which isn’t quite as emotional as the makers believe it to be.

But enough of the plot and the action, I hear you cry! On the acting side of things, this was a risky film. Of the central trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, at least two of the three have long been identified as the weak link in the films, with the specifics varying with the viewer. As the trio are on the run, away from the safety blanket of Hogwarts and the cast of adults who inject much of the class and eccentricity of the series, this could have been a disaster. Happily, this is not the case. True, I would never say that any of them really set the screen alight with the quality of their acting, but they all give solid performances that are difficult to really fault – with one exception. In the aftermath of an early duel, Grint gets a nice little moment where he raises the question of whether they should kill or incapacitate their opponents. It is excellently done, and a good sign of development for the character. Inevitably though, it is when the villains are on screen that the acting really comes alive. As mentioned above, there isn’t much in the way of subtlety, but then the mix of insane and racist wizards doesn’t really require subtlety. Alan Rickman makes the most of his brief appearance, as does Jason Isaacs, hamming it up magnificently. True honours must go to Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes though, as Bellatrix Lestrange and Lord Voldemort respectively. Both dominate the screen whenever they appear, both gleefully, insanely malevolent.

While the cast appear to have been explicitly instructed not to rein themselves in, this is perhaps the subtlest film of the series. I must admit, that as I left the cinema last night, I felt a little underwhelmed. By no means did I think the film bad, but I did feel that it lacked sparkle, that it was little more than build-up for part 2, out next summer. To a certain extent, this is still true, but as I have gone back over it, recalling little snippets and moments, I keep finding more to enjoy and admire. It will benefit from repeated viewings, certainly.

And last, but by no means least, I should give a quick word to the design and the visuals. In a word, superb. The few familiar locations are customarily stunning, and the beautiful set for the Ministry of Magic from Order of the Phoenix gets expanded into a wilfully bizarre location with clear inspiration from films like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and 1984. Most of the film, of course, takes place away from elaborate sets, and the team have apparently been watching Lord of the Rings very closely; each exterior location looks magnificent.

Ultimately, the film succeeds on pretty much every level, but rarely reaches true brilliance, and lacks a certain sparkle. Hopefully, part 2 will stand up to the confident opening part. It is open to debate as to how much it will do with non-fans and, indeed, more obsessive fans. There are numerous changes and cuts from the book which will doubtless infuriate many, but there is only one bit that cannot be understood solely from the films, which is frankly incredible.

Finally, the million dollar question: was the split necessary? Well…maybe. There was a lot to pack in, and even with the judicious trimming the film runs to somewhere in the order of two to two and a half hours. The second half will probably be just as long, hard as that is to believe. Certainly, I never felt that the film had been padded to justify making more money, although it would be incredibly na├»ve to think that money did not play some part in the decision. At best, it is a financial decision that has been justified artistically, so I won’t quibble too much.

In Conclusion: Always good, if never spectacular, and well worth a watch. A highly confident instalment in the series, and I firmly believe that when watched as a whole, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be possibly the best of the seven/eight films.

Three and a half out of five

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