19 November 2010

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1- Review

This review is spoiler-free as far as Deathly Hallows goes, but may contain spoilers for the previous six films.

At the top, I'm going to say this. I disagree with the decision to break up Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two films. The major achievement of David Yates' contributions to the series is the sense of vitality in his films, making one of the better, shorter films out of the weakest and longest book, The Order of the Phoenix. However, I will also say that for a bad idea, this is the best film it could possibly be.

So in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows... sigh... Part 1, Harry, Ron and Hermione are left to their dangerous quest. Fragments of Lord Voldemort's soul are secreted within four Horcruxes, seemingly inconspicuous objects that must be located and destroyed. As his Death Eaters overtake the Ministry and impose a dictatorship, Voldemort pledges that he will kill Harry personally. Harry and his friends have never been more alone.

Many of my quibbles with the fans from when last year's Half-Blood Prince was released are consistent here. You can't expect it to be very accessible if you haven't watched the previous six films, and you can't complain that minor stuff was left out of the books in the adaptation. With this instalment particularly, when more passages are lifted directly from the book than ever before, I'm not taking any of the latter. If you know me out there in the real world and tell me that it was vital to hear about what Professor Lupin's been up to since we last saw him, I'm going to Expelliarmus your face off, with my foot.

The particular reason I'm not going to hear a word against David Yates is because his tenure has been the making of this series. Alfonso Cuaron might have made the best of the films to date, but he didn't stick around to build on his work. Yates has directed four of what eventually stands as an eight-part undertaking. And he's done a stellar job with this one. What I liked about Half-Blood Prince was its fine balance of genuinely funny comedy and properly scary horror, but with only half a book to work with, he has to be a little more workmanlike.

I can imagine another of the Potter directors thus far, like Chris Columbus or maybe Mike Newell, doing a lot less with the split. Let's be clear- Part 2 of the story, due out in July, will clearly be an action extravaganza. It's the grand finale. Many would be content to skimp on Part 1 a little. Instead, Yates foregrounds our three leads, taking them out of the thespian-filled halls of Hogwarts and pitching them into a road trip full of dread, isolation and desperation. Having balanced comedy and horror so well in the previous instalment, the jokes seem funnier this time around even though they're weaker than before. Levity is so welcome at these points because the dread is so all-consuming.

The romantic aspect of Half-Blood Prince takes on a new intensity in this instalment. That film was about discovery, delivering on the promise of the minor romantic comedy interlude from Goblet of Fire- teenagers huddling in dark corners of Hogwarts to make out. Outside of Hogwarts' walls, we get an installment that's more about sex. In one terrifically intense scene where Ron's soul is bared by Voldemort, we're given the steamiest scene we're ever likely to see in the family franchise, and it feels like a totally natural development- these aren't schoolkids we're watching. Not anymore.

And to say that it's not as action-packed as other instalments makes me really look forward to the final battle even more. What action scenes there are are amongst the best we've ever seen in this series, from a heart-stopping airborne chase to the climactic magical melee with Voldemort's subordinates. It all looks phenomenal too, with cinematographer Eduardo Serra creating some really fantastic sustained shots that really eke out the highest possible amount of tension.

I normally set some time aside to talk about actors, but the performances have never been the most notable aspect of this series. Daniel Radcliffe actually seems to coast through this one a little more than before, but Rupert Grint and Emma Watson prove their mettle throughout. As I said, it's just those three for great lengths of the film, and you feel like they've earned it, as performers. Amongst the usual new arrivals, Peter Mullan and Rhys Ifans leave the biggest impression, with Bill Nighy shamelessly but necessarily relegated to a couple of cameo appearances. Elsewhere, Helena Bonham Carter continues to steal the show, and there's still not nearly enough of Alan Rickman. This must be rectified in the final part.

As much as I've stressed that it's the best film you can make out of half a book, it's still not flawless. As with the original text, the momentum meanders a little in the second act, and as a result, the third act and makeshift resolution seem rushed by comparison. I also didn't really appreciate how literal the adaptation was this time around- some of the stuff that's directly quoted doesn't work nearly as well on screen as on the page. All of this said, a certain tragic scene near the end wet my eyes more in the film than it did on the page. A single, leaner film would have cut out most of the ancillary stuff, but then a single, leaner film would probably have had to cut the titular Deathly Hallows, which is more of a flaw with the book than the film.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is a bad idea, executed extraordinarily well. Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves take all of the dread that characterises the first part of JK Rowling's final chapter and they've distilled it in celluloid form. I just wish they'd made a two hour film out of it instead of a 142 minute film- as it stands, I feel many will dismiss it as a prequel when you clearly have talented filmmakers doing their very best to make it work. The adaptation, more rigid and faithful than ever, still won't please every fan of the books, so why try so hard? The film ends on a massive cliffhanger to mask the lack of a climax, and on the whole, it''s more than good enough to have you counting down the days to the conclusion.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is now showing in cinemas nationwide, in 2D only. (hooray!)
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If you've seen the new Harry Potter film, why not share your comments below? If you were led by Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier to expect funnier things from the opening scene with Hermione performing "Forgeticus!", so was I. Sniffle.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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