Friday, November 19, 2010

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

The end has begun, and that has never been more apparent or heartbreaking than in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1, the first installment in the two part final chapter of the epic fantasy. Before I get things rolling, I think I should state right out front that this review is coming from the mindset of a powerful Harry Potter fan. I'm a lot of things, but I've never been a traitor, and I'm certainly not going to start here. And in all honesty, if you're not a fan of this saga, then I really don't care about you right now. I'm sorry to say that the opinion of a non-Potter fan means absolutely nothing, as you can tell by the sheer opposition of the critical masses and the fact that I simply don't care what most of them think. These films are never going to win Best Picture, and it's stupid to even hope. They are made for us, the fans, and in that respect, they've been a huge success. People are going to talk and argue and debate about this film heavily based on how reverential it was to the novel, whether or not things were still left out, and above anything else, whether or not this one is the best in the series.

The seventh installment in the Harry Potter saga follows our main trio on their most harrowing journey ever. If there's a word to describe this film perfectly, it's despair. The wizarding world is in chaos, under the near constant threat of attack by Voldemort and the Death Eaters. The Ministry of Magic has been infiltrated, and our trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione are now on their own in a rather frightening world. Meanwhile, they try their humble best to save the world by destroying the individual pieces of Voldemort's soul, so that they can one day hope to finally beat him. However, this film doesn't at all sugarcoat how dire their situation is, and how vastly outnumbered and outmatched they are. To put it simply, saving the world is literally the hardest and most terrifying thing to do. Not that you didn't assume that already, but this film confirms it as a fact.

Never before has the threat of death seemed more real in a film. A particularly squirm inducing scene at the beginning of the film, featuring Voldemort doing despicable things to a former Hogwarts teacher, really brings this prospect home. We're not in childrens territory anymore, and this one lives on the dark edge of the PG-13 rating. There are some prominent horror elements that will truly cause the audiences to fear for our trio's lives. The thing that stuck around in my mind was the fact that it made me forget that I had read the book at all. There were moments when I felt that I had no idea what was going to happen next.

This film really features some absolutely astounding directing from David Yates, master of tone. The man now has a title to cling to, and it's a very appropriate one. Over the course of the last three Potter films, Yates has turned the tone of the series into something new and unique. It's unlike any film you've ever seen before, which is something that only the best films can claim. This really is a road film, with the trio wandering desperately around these magnificent landscapes, thus allowing the audience to drink in the scenery and the sense of loneliness that pervades every frame. This is probably the closest thing we'll ever get to a live-action Hayao Miyazaki film like Princess Mononoke.

One of the main objections propped up against this film is the camping sequences, which were also a weakness from the books. The pacing in these portions does slow down, though not as tremendously as hinted at before. It is a bit slow, but mostly because you're not really sure what's going to happen in certain scenes. All the same, they definitely condensed a lot of the lacking space into meaningful passages. This is probably as short as it's going to get. It does offer plenty of truly emotional scenes, including a rather warm and sweet moment between Harry and Hermione. The two really come to reconsider their relationship after Ron leaves, and though they know that they will probably always be purely platonic friends, they cannot help but reach out for a shoulder to lean their heads on.

However, my favorite scene of this film, without a doubt, is a different one between Harry and Hermione, where it really feels like they're about to give up, and I wouldn't blame them. They no longer have a home, and if things stay as they are, they will never see their family or their loved ones ever again. It's a truly melancholy moment that works as a parallel of real world fugitives seeking refuge in Mexico or Canada. If you haven't figured out by this point, I absolutely adored this film, but that doesn't mean there weren't a few things I wasn't sure about. The scene where apparitions of Harry and Hermione appear before Ron definitely felt awkward, and got a reaction of surprise and fear from the audience.

I always said that I'd be able to move past most problems with the film as long as it was well written, and I stick by that. The screenplay by Steve Kloves works brilliantly for the most part, but there are a few scenes that just didn't feel right and felt like they could use further work. I wish that I had more to dislike about the film, just so it wouldn't seem like I'm nitpicking at small and insignificant problems. There aren't any more, because this may indeed be the best film in the series. It definitely eclipses Half-Blood Prince in terms of action, dialogue, emotion, and even artistic integrity.

The performances from our main trio are as fantastic as they've ever been, and if they hadn't been sticking to these characters for years, I'd suggest one of them for an acting nomination. Daniel Radcliffe continues to bring the sorrow of Harry's situation through to the audience, and works best in the quiet scenes, of which there are many. Rupert Grint is absolutely hilarious for most of the film, and Ron will always be proper comic relief, but he also packs a dramatic punch in one particular scene. However, the best performance of this film comes from young Emma Watson, who brings Hermione to new life. She's really the strongest female character of any fantasy franchise, with clever intellect and quick action coming second to the heartbreaking sensibility that comes through in most of her scenes.

I'll be damned if I'm not going to mention the supporting cast of the British elite. Alan Rickman puts in great work in his fleeting time on screen as Severus Snape. Imelda Staunton returns as Dolores Umbridge to remind us why we despised the fifth film so much, not from her performance, but from the foul atmosphere her character aided to. Jason Isaacs is a particular standout as the disheveled and broken Lucius Malfoy. Helena Bonham Carter is absolutely insane as Bellatrix Lestrange, and it works best in this film, if it works anywhere. As for Ralph Fiennes, my early expectations of an increasingly hammy performance were thrown out the window by this terrifying depiction. If you have somehow forgotten, Voldemort is, and forever shall be, pure evil. There are also fantastic, if short, performances from Rhys Ifans, Tom Felton, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, and Toby Jones as the voice of the honest and loyal house elf, Dobby.

As said before, these films have reached an artistic peak with this installment. The production design is second to none, and has been constantly delivering on a massive scale for years. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra surpasses the fantastic work of Bruno Delbonnel and adds textures and hues that feel noticeably strange, but realistic. Alexandre Desplat sold me weeks ago on his score for the new film, and though I wish it was used a bit more, it shined through several scenes. Expect Oscar nominations a plenty in the technical departments, even if it's unlikely they'll exist anywhere else. As for where this film ranks in the grand scheme of things, I would've been hesitant to call it the best immediately after I saw it, but it has grown on me immensely in the few hours since then. The ending may feel a bit abrupt, but know that it isn't an ending. It's just the beginning of the epic finale. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 doesn't feel so much like a prologue as it does half a film, be it a magnificent one. It's a film about the loss of life, innocence, and faith.


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