Now, almost a decade since the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it’s difficult for me to enter a Harry Potter film and even attempt to be objective. Going in, I know there’s a 99.99% chance I’m going to love it. At this point, they would seriously have to alter the story or characters beyond recognition for me to even furrow my brow disapprovingly. So that’s who I am and where I’m coming from. Now, let the gushing begin!
Just as my relationship with each of the books has changed over the years (Azkkaban was my favorite for ages and Phoenix my least favorite, until, shockingly, Phoenix became my favorite, etc.), so too have my relationships with the films changed (again, Azkaban and Phoenix battle it out for the top spot). Breaking Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two parts has a lot of reviewers sneering, as if it’s a purely money-making decision. As if one five-hour movie, with only 2 screenings a day, would somehow be preferable. While I’m sure there will be smiles at WB when they’re raking in the money for two films instead of one, I’m really not bothered by the split. When I had the final book in my hands, I put off reading the final chapters for days, realizing that with a few pages, it would all be over. With the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One, it really is almost over. So, the longer they drag it out, the better.
With each installment of the HP saga, the stakes elevate, the characters and plot deepen and everything gets either a little bit (or a whole lot) darker and more desperate. Half-Blood Prince ended with the death of Dumbledore and the rise of Voldemort and his Deatheaters. Both of these developments are still fresh in mind as Deathly Hallows begins. Right away, Harry’s (Daniel Radcliffe) friends and loved ones, including Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), must put themselves in danger to help Harry escape the Dursley’s home once and for all. It’s a mad chase, and a stirring way to begin what will become a surprisingly contemplative movie. Oh, there are action sequences throughout, but the bulk of the 2.5 hour run time is, dare I say, a slow and deliberately paced look into the inner workings of the relationship between our three heroes, and the new world order closing in on them.
The pace is key here, building a tense and claustrophobic world, even as Harry, Ron and Hermione continually find themselves in bleak, desolate and wide open spaces. All of which are beautifully composed and captured by cinematographer Eduardo Serra (Girl With a Pearl Earring). The landscapes, burnt-out homes and desolate woods are all dark, cold and haunting, far from the madding crowd, yes, but never warm or inviting enough to allow the characters or the audience to rest. As the tension builds, Serra switches to a handheld look to add a frantic layer to the action on screen. Director David Yates (who previously helmed Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince) rarely lets us feel at ease, creating an uncomfortable and tense movie-going experience. Adding (or subtracting) to that sense of dread and anxiety is a surprising lack of music. We’re used to having film music tell us how to feel, guiding us along the story and character arcs. Deathly Hallows uses music sparingly, opting instead for awkward and terrifying silences, full of dread and unease. It’s a brilliant choice and fits the tone and subject matter perfectly.
If I’ve made the whole movie sound like an unpleasant experience, I assure you it is not. Well-crafted and deliberate in its choices, Deathly Hallows will unnerve you. However, no such feat could be accomplished without the aid of the cast, who has matured into a strong and trusting ensemble. I say “trusting,” because the three leads have obviously been through everything together, and it shows. I don’t question, not even for a moment, their love and devotion for each other. They’ve come a long way since the adorable mugging faces of Sorcerer’s Stone. While Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman (here, in too small of a role for Snape fans like me) each lends the gravitas of their combined thespian experiences to the proceedings, it’s the heart-on-the-sleeve honesty from the “kids” that grounds the film in emotional reality.
There is a lot of information about horcruxes, hallows and the life and times of Dumbledore to fit in. I was worried we might not see much of Gellert Grindelwald and his importance in Dumbledore’s life. Luckily, they manage to squeeze him in, though his full role remains a mystery by the end of the film. Of particular note is the tale of the Three Brothers and the Deathly Hallows, which is exquisitely told in an animated sequence, which is a first for the Harry Potter films, yet fits in perfectly. It’s another clever choice that adds to the dark and otherworldly tone and elevates the tale and its place in the story.
If you’ve decided to make Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows your first HP movie-going experience, don’t. It’s not for you. It’s for the fans who have been on this journey for 10+ years now. From the books to the films to this moment: the beginning of the end. There’s no time for lengthy exposition or a re-cap of the first six films. The film even uses a bit of cinematic/literary shorthand, trusting the audience’s knowledge will fill in the gaps. (For instance, the sudden appearance of the broken mirror piece that never made it into the last film). I’m sure this will bother the casual Harry Potter fan, but again, I don’t think this film is for them. I, myself, did end up being slightly disappointed that three of my favorite scenes from the book didn’t make it into the film. The first is Dudley‘s goodbye to Harry. It’s a moment of redemption for Dudley that I think he deserves. Second, the trio’s visit to Luna‘s room in her house. They make it to her house, yes, but not to her room, where they see just how much their friendship means to her. I won’t describe the third, since it deals with Dobby, and is a seemingly small change, but deflates some of the emotional punch of the climax. We’ll talk about it after you’ve all seen it. So, see, I can be a little objective.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One is a haunting prelude to the war that is to come. It hits all the important emotional points and paves the way for Harry and his friends to take the fight to Voldemort. For the cynics, I think it’s safe to say some theaters will be showing a double feature once Part Two is released next summer, so if you prefer your finale in a 5-hour block, you just have to wait a few more months.
P.S. Trailers. My audience went nuts for Cowboys and Aliens, yet were completely dismissive of Green Lantern. I don’t blame them. The GL trailer really falls flat, and even though Carol Ferris only has one line in the trailer, her delivery is so painful, it elicited mostly guffaws from the audience. Warner Bros. and DC need to cut together a better trailer if they hope to generate the necessary buzz to launch yet another superhero film franchise. But Ryan Reynolds? Totally the sexiest man alive.