Film Review with Robert Mann – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 ****
“The motion picture event of a generation” – this is the bold claim made by the first trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Whether or not any film can actually make such a claim without seeming self righteous is debatable but in the case of Harry Potter it is quite possibly the truth.
Harry Potter has become one of the singular most successful movie franchises ever at the US, UK and worldwide box office, it has cast a powerful spell over both film critics and casual moviegoers alike and it has amassed a ravenous army of die-hard fans who will be rushing to cinemas possibly several times to check out the latest instalment in the saga – something that anyone must admit is a great thing for the movie industry, whether you are a Harry Potter fan or not. This weekend is the moment that many a Harry Potter fan has been waiting for ever since we were first introduced the young wizard on the big screen all the way back in 2001 – well, almost. You see, after having discussed the possibility of adapting each of the last three Harry Potter stories as two movies but ultimately going the route of just one in each case, the filmmakers have decided that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows just could not be adapted as one movie without losing too much vital narrative and hence it has become the first (and, for obvious reasons, the last) of the Harry Potter books to be made into two movies, thus meaning that the real event will rather be Part 2 which is in cinemas next summer, that instalment being the true finale of the series. Nonetheless, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is preceded by a tremendous sense of excitement and one that may have actually been heightened by the studio’s decision to not release the film in the now-beginning-to-be-derided-by-many format of 3D due to the fact that a satisfactory 3D conversion could not be completed on time for the film’s release – clearly Warner Bros has learnt from the Clash of the Titans fiasco. It’s a good thing because shonky 3D could potentially have ruined the fine work that director David Yates (the same guy who directed both Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince) has done here, Part 1 of this epic finale being an example of Harry Potter at his very best.
Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is dead, murdered at the hands of the Death Eaters – Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Narcissa Malfoy (Helen McCrory) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) – and Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) power is growing, his forces now having infiltrated the Ministry of Magic in the guise of Pius Thicknesse (Guy Henry), the new Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy) powerless to stop them. Voldemort knows that the only one who stands in his way is Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and has ordered his Death Eaters to track him down and return him alive so that he himself may kill him. So, in the black of night, the Order of the Phoenix – Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Alastor ‘Mad Eye’ Moody (Brendan Gleeson), Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), Nymphadora Tonks (Natalia Tena), Kingsley Shacklebolt (George Harris), Fred Weasley (James Phelps), George Weasley (Oliver Phelps), Arthur Weasley (Mark Williams), Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson), Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy) and Mundungus Fletcher (Andy Linden) – along with Harry’s closest friends, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), attempt to sneak Harry away to safety. Safety, however, is becoming a rare commodity in the increasingly dangerous wizarding world and things only get worse with the infiltration of the Ministry of Magic taking on a horrific new turn as Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) is placed in charge of weeding out witches and wizards who are not pure of blood in Voldemort’s mission to purge the magic world of those he considers unworthy. With Voldemort growing more powerful by the day, Harry, Ron and Hermione set out on a perilous mission to track down and destroy the secret to Voldemort’s immortality and destruction – the Horcruxes. Without the guidance of their professors or the protection of Dumbledore, the three friends must rely on one another more than ever. But Dark Forces in their midst threaten to not only tear them apart but potentially destroy the entire world as the long-feared war has begun, leaving no one unscathed, not even such allies as Xenophilius Lovegood (Rhys Ifans), his daughter Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) and elf Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones). With little help and no plan to speak of, Harry, Ron and Hermione find themselves facing their toughest challenges yet but are they powerful enough to triumph?
“These are dark times, there is no denying” – these are the words of Rufus Scrimgeour, the words that open Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and that perfectly sum up the tone that is present throughout the film. This is without a doubt the darkest and scariest chapter in the series to date, reflecting the increasingly dark tone of the books – even the Warner Bros logo at the start of the film reflects the darker tone, presented here as a decaying representation of its former glorious self – and the film is dark in more ways than one, both its subject matter and its visuals being very lacking in lightness. The visuals certainly are very dark, at times it being almost too difficult to see what is going on but, thanks to some excellent and often beautiful cinematography, never quite too dark – it’s probably a good job this isn’t in 3D as the darkened glasses required to view 3D movies can make the image even darker, something that could make it impossible to see anything here. In general, from a technical standpoint, this film emerges as one of the best made films in the series. Obviously, the film boasts incredible visual effects and never do the effects fail to dazzle, often being truly magical but also suitably bringing the dark world of the story to life and seamlessly blending real world environments, i.e. the muggle world, with the world of witches and wizards. While action sequences are quite few and far between, what we do get is suitably dazzling and very enjoyable, the way that the action enters the real world full on – an opening chase sequence which takes us from above the streets of London and into the streets of London is excellently done – being superbly handled. The real highlight in this regard, however, are the scenes set within the Ministry of Magic, which are truly epic in their scale. There is no shortage of spectacle to behold and the spectacle doesn’t all come courtesy of visual effects but also excellent production and set design, the production values in general being superb. In particular, the Ministry of Magic is spectacularly realised with a look and feel that is reminiscent of the distinctive look that Terry Gilliam brought to his cult classic Brazil while many gothic snow covered locales are almost Tim Burton-esque in their appearance, scenes that see Harry, Ron and Hermione crossing through desolate environments ravaged by Voldemort’s forces take on an almost post apocalyptic feel and a puppet/animation sequence that serves as a sort of film within the film to explain what the Deathly Hallows actually are is a very distinctive and eye-catching piece of work – all things that really heighten the dark tone that is established within the storyline.
The storyline itself isn’t short of darkness either. This is a film that will scare the hell out of many viewers, younger ones in particular, the filmmakers not afraid to make us viewers feel afraid. The plot here really isn’t afraid to go to some very dark places – although there are still plenty of very funny humorous moments to lighten the mood as well as a dash of romance in the form of a wedding and a tender moment between Harry and Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), the latter sadly not appearing much in this film – with numerous characters being killed off (I’m not going to say who), tragedy being very prevalent – a scene where Hermione wipes herself from her parents’ memory to protect them is heartbreaking – and the emotional strain caused by everything that is going on being well explored, many character’s turning on each other and us completely understanding just why it is happening. This is a film that proves almost as emotional for us to watch as it is for the characters to experience as we have grown up with these individuals and grown to almost love them, something that makes seeing them go through the tragedies and torments they experience here almost unbearable to watch at times, making us truly engage with them at an emotional level. The success of this, however, can be heavily attributed to the cast as well as the writing. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson really act their socks off here – it is almost hard to believe now that when we first saw these three on the big screen in 2001 they really couldn’t act at all – investing real emotion into their roles, making the situations they are in and the way they react to them completely convincing for us. Together, they completely excel but it isn’t just them who are great, rather everyone. The who’s who of British actors appearing in the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise gets even bigger with this film with new additions appearing alongside old favourites, many characters being brought back, if only for cameo appearances – Vernon Dursley (Richard Griffiths), Dudley Dursley (Harry Melling), Petunia Dursley (Fiona Shaw), Wormtail (Timothy Spall), Ollivander (John Hurt), Madame Maxine (Frances de la Tour), Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson) and Griphook (Warwick Davis) in addition to all those names mentioned in the synopsis and numerous Hogwarts students who appear in just one scene – but there are too many great performances to really comment on everyone so I’ll just highlight some of the standout performers. Franchise newcomer Rhys Ifans follows up his recent terrific performance in Mr Nice with another fantastic performance which sees him rendered almost unrecognisable, Bill Nighy impresses in his limited screen time, Imelda Staunton once again portrays evil in its most subtlest form, Helena Bonham Carter does mad like few others can and Ralph Fiennes’s performance is completely sinister.
With Hogwarts completely out of the picture – seriously, it doesn’t feature at all, the most we see of any of the other characters from the school being a very brief scene aboard the Hogwarts Express as it is en route to the school – and real world environments featuring more predominantly, the film takes on a very different feel to the previous films, coming across considerably less episodic and much more like a full on adventure, even though the emphasis here really is more on story and less on action. This proves to be a slight hindrance at times as, while the story is engaging, the level of excitement created by the early action sequences is not maintained for the duration. With the previous films there was always a sense that something was missing (even for me, someone who has never read the books) but here, with the story having being spread out over two movies and thus meaning that little if anything has had to be left on the cutting room floor – we get a lot more exposition than in the other films – there is a greater sense that what we are seeing is complete…sort of anyway. You see, what we get here does undoubtedly feel very well developed and free of plot holes but it is impossible to overlook the fact that this is essentially just half a movie and that much of what happens here really feels like build up to the really exciting and interesting stuff that is coming in Part 2. Additionally, this completeness occasionally makes the film feel a little dragged out and it is likely that only diehard fans will fully appreciate the completeness of the film as an adaptation of the book. Other slight issues are that, as this really seems like a film tailored to fans first and foremost, things often aren’t made so clear for casual viewers, a lot of little details likely to only be appreciated by diehard fans and it sometimes being a bit difficult to keep track of who everyone is with all the different character names that are mentioned. These flaws are relatively minor and for many viewers, who will undoubtedly be fans of the books, they may not be flaws at all but they are nonetheless slight setbacks that hold the film back from being as good as it could be. The real setback, however, comes from the fact that, with a cliff-hanger ending that won’t be resolved until next summer, this is a film that fails to be wholly satisfying, the reason for this being simply that is isn’t whole. This is merely the first part of the story and as good as what we get here is it does feel like it is mostly set up for what is yet to come – no doubt it would stand up better if viewed together with Part 2 so that the story could unfold in its entirety. So, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is not a perfect film but it is still one of the finest entries in the Harry Potter franchise and essential viewing for any Harry Potter fan. If nothing else, it will really whet your appetite for the final chapter in this epic saga and it does a very good of it.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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