Monday, November 22, 2010

The End In Sight: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

As we approach the end of the long road that is the Harry Potter film series with the release this past weekend of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, I want to make one thing clear. From the beginning, I've been a fan of J.K. Rowling's books and the Warner Brothers adaptations. That does not mean, however, I've set my critical faculties aside when it comes to either the novels or the films. There have been moments in all of them when my patience has been tried just as much as my enthusiasm has been elevated. For example, it is no accident that the best film, Alfonso Cuarón's absolutely sublime Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), is based on the best of the books. Everything in both works brilliantly, and yet screenwriter Steve Kloves (writer of all the films except Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), while staying true to Rowling’s template, was unafraid to strip away extraneous plot and characters. Only occasionally have I regretted some of the excisions made for all the films.

We have been very fortunate with Harry Potter on the big screen. The closest to bad that the series got was Chris Columbus' Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), and that was partially because it was based on the weakest book in the series. With this second novel, Rowling didn't seem to have a strong handle on the story, or where she was going with it, so both versions meandered and only found their respective legs during the finale. No offence to Columbus, but he's a hack. I will always have respect for him on one level – his choice of the three leads was inspired – but he lacks visual inventiveness and can be quite sloppy.

JK Rowling
(There's one sequence in the first film, Philosopher's Stone (2001), when Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is about to leave Harry at the King’s Cross station in London, that is so poorly directed it threw me out of the film for a moment. Harry is on a bridge with Hagrid as Hagrid departs. Harry stares at his train ticket and says a ponderous line such as “Hagrid, this ticket says Platform 9 ¾ . That doesn’t make any sense.” Now, a normal person would look at the ticket and then look up at the person they are speaking to, but because Hagrid was supposed to vanish without Harry noticing, Columbus had Radcliffe just stare fixedly at the ticket as he spoke. It was a poor piece of staging and direction.

Since the first two films were only mildly dark (each succeeding book and film have become increasingly darker), he was probably a serviceable director for at least the first picture (he is known to work well with child actors). He should have been replaced on the second. Perhaps somebody as brilliant as Cuarón might have done something with it, but since the material is so weak, perhaps not.

Yes, as a fan, I want the films to always be good, and I've been generally happy with all of them on some level (even the second one had a great hammy performance by Kenneth Branagh). This hope comes from enjoying the characters and the world that Rowling created. Sure, I also recognize that perhaps Rowling was not entirely original in everything she did (there are echoes of Tolkien, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Bible, Greek and Roman myth, etc.), but as someone said a long time ago, there are only seven basic plots in the world and all we can do is endlessly repeat them. Back in their day, I’ll bet Tolkien, Dickens and Shakespeare (and the Roman myth writers) probably had the same charges levelled at them.

Radcliffe, Watson, Grint - 2010
This is a very long way to introduce my thoughts on The Deathly Hallows, Part 1, directed by David Yates (director of the two previous films, the solid Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) and the wonderful Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)). I'll keep my recounting of the plot brief, because, quite frankly, you have either read the book, or you've read the reviews, so you know the premise. All I will say is that the resistance to Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is in disarray. His fascist regime is rising. After several assassinations, they have taken over the Ministry of Magic (ostensibly the government for the magical world) with plans to kill all impure Muggles (non-magical folk) or half-bloods so that the supposedly pure-blood witches and wizards, led by Voldemort, can impose their will. This has led to Harry, Ron and Hermione (now, if you don't know who they are, I can't help you. Go back to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and start reading or watching – I'll wait. You got it? Good. Let's carry on.) being forced to live rough in the wilds of England to evade capture. They are also searching for the horcruxes, everyday items that contain pieces of Voldemort's soul that must be found and destroyed if He Who Shall Not Be Named is to be killed.

Director David Yates
Yates and screenwriter Kloves have taken Rowling's long last book and found the textures and rhythms within it to make, if not a great film, a pretty damn good one. (By the last book, Rowling was probably indulged a bit by her editors, who allowed her to extend sequences far longer than necessary and create interesting but mostly unnecessary set pieces. So apparently she didn't want it to end either. Is that a crime?) Other critics have complained that this film lost its way because Hogwarts never appears. This is nonsense. The school was never more important than the characters that populated it. Just like Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 were not about Henry IV at all, but about the rise of Henry V, the Potter oeuvre has been about the moment when Harry is forced to stand outside the safe walls of Hogwarts without the protection of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) or any of his other father figures (Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), Lupus (David Thewlis), his own dead parents) to face the enemy: his insidious doppelganger, Voldemort. In this film, he does.

Watson, Radcliffe, Grint - 2001
Since the great British thespians that have populated the previous films are reduced to cameos, this new work rests firmly on the young shoulders of Daniel Radcliffe (Harry). Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron). In the first two films, these three were essentially cute, adorable child actors with little to offer beyond spunk and good humour. From Cuarón's work onwards, they’ve been increasingly forced to carry the burden. The extra weight now pays off beautifully. The centre of the film is a long ramble through the countryside featuring first the trio, and then, for another long stretch, just Harry and Hermione (Ron has fought with them and left). If any of them were even remotely weak, the production would have collapsed. Although perhaps not as emotionally moving as it could be, and there are still some slow sections, it’s still a pretty fine picture. A few examples:

– As the decline of the opposition approaches, anybody who stands against Voldemort is in danger, including oblivious loved ones, such as Hermione's Muggle parents. In order to protect them, she casts the Obliviate Spell. Essentially, it removes not only all memories of their daughter, it also wipes all pictures of her image. As this young girl (she's only 17 or 18) finishes obliterating herself from their lives, Hermione is barely able to hold herself together. Watson is quite moving here. With only one word of dialogue (“Obliviate”), and body language, she shows expertly her growth as an actress.

– After the collapse, the three protagonists move from wilderness location to wilderness location. A desperate and depressed Ron keeps a radio with him at all times, permanently tuned to a rebel station that, amongst other things, reads a list of the dead. Irritated by its incessant drone, Harry threatens to turn it off. Hermione intervenes by saying that every time Ron doesn't hear the names of his family read out means he can continue to function another day. This ongoing tragedy is brought home to us because in the background of scene after scene we hear that rebel radio’s mortality report.

Godric's Hollow Sequence
 – Later in the film, Harry and Hermione arrive in the town of Godric's Hollow in search of a witch and historian, Bathilda Bagshot, who may know the whereabouts of Gryffindor's Sword (a weapon that theoretically can destroy horcruxes). This is the town where Harry was born and his parents were murdered by Voldemort. Harry finds their gravestone – something he has never seen before. Though thoughtfully staged, that is not the moment that resonated for me. As they stand outside a pub on a snow-swept street, Hermione mentions to Harry that it is early Christmas day. Not only does this tell us simply that they have been on the road for about six months, it also offers an echo back to a sequence in the first film: When Harry is forced to spend Christmas alone at Hogwarts, Ron surprises him with both his presence and presents. It's a touching, happy scene. Moving forward seven films, Christmas is here again, and being celebrated by Harry when he is essentially homeless and on the run.

– Another lovely echo to the early film is embodied in a simple dance. After more time on the road, despair (and Ron's continued absence) is taking its toll on both Harry and Hermione. To cheer her up, he temporarily adjusts the radio away from the rebel voice to a song. They share a goofy dance with lots of laughter and a wonderful awkwardness. They part and the sombre mood quickly returns, but for a few fleeting seconds their childhood has been revived.

– And finally, a decision to add a magical moment to a film set in a world of magic must be highlighted. A character is trying to explain to Harry, Ron and Hermione the meaning of a symbol he wears around his neck. He tells them The Tale of the Three Brothers. The story could have been related to them verbally and then they would have moved on. Instead, Yates and company decided to illustrate it with animation. Another critic described the imagery as looking like Balinese shadow puppets. I think that is a perfect description and it is an audacious choice in a mainstream movie.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 could be looked at as a money grab, and in some ways maybe it is. However, the book presents a complex story that deserves the extra screen time, and there’s no way an audience would sit still for the four hours that the film would have needed to do justice to Rowling's finale in one movie. The new release feels unfinished in some ways because of it, but they managed to find an elegant cliffhanger on which to end. Me, I'm already looking forward to July 2011 when Part 2 opens.

Addendum: This is, best to worst, how I rate the Harry Potter films

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

 David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

1 comment:

  1. I don't quite agree with you about the Chamber of Secrets, I didn't think it was weak at all. And just for the record J. K. Rowling had already planned everything when she wrote the first book.

    If you want to know more I would suggest reading Harry, a History by Melissa Anelli.