Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Film Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1

Many of you may already know I am personally one of the Harry Potter franchise’s biggest fans. I’ve ready every book at least once (Deathly Hallows 4 times actually). I just returned from Thanksgiving Day visit to Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando. And, I’m officially declaring an undying affection for Potions Professor and present Hogwart's Headmaster Severus Snape.

If you haven’t already been coerced by the non stop TV spots and pervasive marketing campaign, I invite you to read our latest movie review. I warn you however, seeing the first 6 films will create a much deeper understanding of the saga so you may want to catch up before heading to the cinema. Many wonderful details and character developments are made in this latest installment and to really enjoy them, it helps to know and see the full story. A special thank you to Jeffrey Butler for his wonderful review. Enjoy everyone!

Walking into Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallow - Part 1, certain expectations are already made. The title itself implies that. This really is one large movie split into two parts, although one should and could easily justify sitting in a theatre for 5 hours when it comes to the final installment of a 10 year, 7 part saga based on some of the best selling books of all time. Just give it an intermission. Yet Warner Bros. chose to split the film, and release it 8 months apart from one another. For some, this will be unbearable. But this movie wasn't made for those people. This movie is for those, young and old, who have grown and witnessed the progression of three of the world's biggest stars and their characters from children into adults, and thankfully allowing the characters of Harry Potter to breathe a bit before the grand finale. And as uncompromising as the series has become in it's attention to detail and supporting characters (you can miss an important bit of info unless you're watching very carefully), the series remains one of the highlights in world of cinema. It presents a world of wonder that is rarely fully realized and grand in scale, yet still maintaining the small, intimate character moments. When director David Yates took over the franchise with 2007’s Order of the Phoenix, a massive shift took place. The world of wizardry had been well established yet in it’s place was a far more real, character focused setting. Gone were the joyous moments spent in potions classes and Quidditch, and in their place were moments about love, friendship and understanding of the ever-growing world of danger. The Potter films became more about Harry, Ron, and of course, Hermione, as they slowly progressed into a more dangerous adulthood. It worked. One would even argue that the films have improved upon one another in each subsequent release. 2009’s The Half-Blood Prince became the pivotal turning point for the series, officially draping it in complete darkness with the death of beloved Professor Dumbledore. Sure, there was still fun and romance to be had, but the end was most certainly coming. And now it is here. Almost. From its opening montage of the three leads preparing for their upcoming quest, Part 1 of The Deathly Hallows pulls you in and doesn't let go until it's somber and tragic yet unanticipated break point.

As the film begins, it seems as though our heroes have already lost. The Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his Death Eaters have made their move, rounding up and branding “muggles’ (non-wizarding folk) and “half-bloods” while beginning their search for Harry Potter, who naturally goes on the run (Hogwarts, the famous school of wizardry, is not in the film at all, a first for the series). Voldemort continues his search to kill Potter before Harry can find the Horcruxes, seven small, seemingly unimportant objects that each house a piece of Voldemort’s soul, and are the key to his immortality. With Voldemort becoming the most powerful and deadly wizard alive, these Horcruxes are Harry’s, and the world’s, only hope of defeating the Dark Lord.

The decision to move the story out of Hogwarts and onto the open road is a bold one, for both the filmmakers and author J.K. Rowling. This time, the trio who received guidance and hope from the adults and mentors in their lives are thrust into the wilderness without a clue what to do. Having only a few leads from their recently deceased mentor, Dumbledore, Harry, Ron, and Hermione struggle to understand how to proceed in the battle against evil. Alone in the forest, the greatest challenge they must first confront is themselves. Harry’s relationship with Ron is most ruthlessly put to the test. After years of commitment and loyalty, Ron’s deepest fears are revealed, with the aid of the horcrux locket weighing heavily against his soul. He begins to feel Harry really isn’t that more powerful than Ron himself. He bought into the hype of “the Chosen One”, but now doubts Harry’s leadership, particularly when Ron is separated from his own family. He sulks, listening to radio reports, hoping to not hear their names in the list of refugees Voldemort is collecting. Hermione as usual remains the most resourceful of the group, and honestly, what would they do without her? Her bag of tricks (literally) gets them out of nearly every dangerous situation that is thrown at them. And of course, Harry, conflicted as always, struggles to live up to his potential as the one to defeat Voldemort, possibly on his own if he has to. Some of this may sound like the same old stuff we've come to expect from a Harry Potter film. But David Yates manages to steer us yet again in a new direction for the characters. All their skills they've acquired, all their struggles they’ve had, both personal and external, have lead to this. We get to see the importance of Harry's invisibility cloak, his wand, and just how strong his friendship with Ron and Hermione really is. What finally sells it is the actors themselves. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint bring their A-game here, turning in their best performances of the series.

This is also one of the most technically accomplished Potter films. Beautifully shot by new cinematographer Eduardo Serra, he brings both a sense of dread and allure to the English countryside that hasn't been seen on film in quite a while, even managing to present the growingly popular handheld camera technique (in a short, quick chase through a forest) and making it feel focused, centered and tense. The sound design for the Horcrux's wailing evil is gruelingly effective and helps maintain the fantasy aspect of the kids hiding in the real “muggle” world, and then there's an outstanding animated sequence late in the film details the story of the Deathly Hallows themselves, perhaps the most engaging scene.

Also, a standout of the film is the return of a few strong supporting characters. Although Mad Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson, not seen since Order of the Phoenix) gets limited screen time, Dobby the house-elf (voiced by Toby Jones) makes a huge return have being written out of the films since 2002's Chamber of Secrets. If you had any doubts about Dobby before, you will have a complete reversal in your feelings about him by the end of Part 1. Unfortunately, Professor Snape (the slimy and amazing Alan Rickman) has but one major scene, which will undoubtedly be rectified in the final installment.

If Deathly Hallows Part 1 has any fault, it lies in the title itself. Despite being highly entertaining, dark and tense, it is truly only half of a movie. There is no resolution that will make it stand on its own as a film, and in that regard it will face some criticism, despite its achievements. It's very daring of Warner Bros. to release this as 2 parts (especially nearly a year apart), but it's been done before, and of course, this is the Harry Potter franchise, everyone is going to see it. And while it is partially frustrating that Deathly Hallows Part 1 ends on such a rather meander note; it is unquestionably strong filmmaking, and certainly one of the more exciting films to be released this year.