After six films and nearly a decade of appearing on movie screens across the world, the Harry Potter franchise has truly grown up. And if Part 1 of Deathly Hallows is any indication, we can expect as visually satisfying and powerful of a conclusion to the Potter universe’s cinematic legacy as fans have hoped for since the final novel was published. Deathly Hallows is the film in which Writer Steve Kloves and and Director David Yates seem to have finally mastered the art of simplifying the Potterverse, striking the right balance between compression, allusion, and invention, while effortlessly shifting between them- though the thematic fabric of the series still takes a hit. This is the result of several film’s worth of practice, plus the advantage of hours and hours of banked imagery that allows Yates to drop a single shot of a character, or a quick flash of a past scene and the note rings out, speaking volumes.
The Potter films have grown increasingly dark, with The Half-Blood Prince nearly dripping with shadow and gloom. Deathly Hallows only dials up the grimness, reflecting the wizarding world’s complete descent into the clutches of Voldemort and his Death Eaters. As the film begins it is clear that the good guys aren’t fighting to win- they’ve already lost. They are instead fighting to survive and to get the chance to repair a world that is broken. The Ministry of Magic has grown reactionary and is obviously unequal to the task of holding back the Dark Lord, while the Order of the Phoenix has been deflated by Dumbledore’s death. Harry knows now that Voldemort has ensured his immortality by splicing his soul and imbuing the pieces into a collection of dark artifacts called Horcruxes, but only a few have been identified and even less already destroyed. Potter is saddled with a task he doesn’t know how to complete, with only the vague clues left by a dead man to guide him, while a target on his back prevents him from straying anywhere near any of his adopted homes, much less returning to (the now Snape-controlled) Hogwarts. In fact, not a single moment takes place in the castle we’ve spent so much time within, the dark stone walls being replaced by the airy vistas of the countryside once Harry, Ron, and Hermione set off to escape the Death Eaters, and figure out the mystery of the Horcruxes.
This is not the film that will entice someone completely new to the franchise, but those that have any familiarity with the films will find a more mature, diverse entry that leads the way into the final climactic chapter of the story. There is no attempt to catch the viewer up with what is now something like 15 hours of storyline, instead it just begins with the assumption that you know and have known these characters. Like a Two Towers or an Empire Strikes Back, the film is inexorably connected to the storylines that lead to it and will continue past it, yet it is possible to recognize within it a well-crafted piece of singular filmmaking. Even if one were unfamiliar with the specific circumstances, the images that begin the film –Hermione removing herself from her parent’s memories and photos, the Vernon family packing up and leaving Harry behind in an empty house– are clearly illustrative enough. Those somber opening scenes are soon followed by a decidedly political description of the current “dark times” by the new Minister of Magic, played by Bill Nighy in his forcefully struggling manner that falls somewhere between Davey Jones and Philip. The declaration is punctuated by the council of Voldemort, which meets in a stone chamber while the contorted, beaten form of the Hogwarts Muggles Studies professor hovers silently like a decoration over the table. Any illusion that these are the light villains of children’s literature is obliterated, and the horror that shows on the faces of even those closest to Voldemort says as much about his evil as any single act of murder. This is Snape’s single scene, and as in the last half-dozen films, Alan Rickman does a tremendous amount of work in only a few seconds. There is no character more complicated in the Potterverse than Severus Snape, and Rickman inhabits that complexity, letting it delicately tremble out through his eyes, if not his voice. It is inevitable that audiences will receive their long-sought cinematic pay-off to his character, and there is no moment in Part II that I’m anticipating more.
Returning to Harry, he is still reeling and confused, having been robbed of his mentor, the twinkling-eyed Wizard that always knew more than anyone else what was going on and what move was next. With him gone Harry is left at the top, the most important figure among the most important events in the world, while those around him try and maintain some sense of normalcy. Perhaps Rowling realized that even a courageous young man like Harry can’t realistically grow up and save the planet so suddenly, and so the character finds himself on the run, relegated to the woods, and separated from all but his two familiar companions. The bulk of Deathly Hallows, Part I, like the book, is spent on a piece of the journey that feels like the franchise wrestling with its influences while the characters wrestle with each other. The Arthurian legend and Middle Earth mythology that have so strongly influenced the Potterverse are tackled directly here, almost as if the series has to shed the crutch of its influences in the same way Harry had to shed the crutch of Dumbledore’s guidance.The trio is saddled with an evil artifact that must be destroyed, while it hangs from their necks and taints their dispositions, creating anger and dissent. The allusion to the One Ring is so clear that it can’t be regarded as laziness or theft, especially when the conclusion of this part of the story is intertwined with an allusion to the offering of Excalibur to Arthur in the lake. When these two influences meet and conclude each other, it takes things to a place from which the story can finally strike out and add its own flavor to the canon of modern fantasy.
Enter the Deathly Hallows lore, where Rowling and the film showcase a wizard’s children story and weave it not only into the fate of the world, but important pieces of Harry’s life that have been present since the beginning of the story. You’ll likely hear a great deal about the animated segment that dramatizes the mythos behind the titular Hallows. Whatever superlatives you hear applied are true, as the whole piece is gorgeous and brilliantly articulated. Set against a parchment background, billowing clouds of ink give life to skeletal forms coated in delicate textures. Emma Watson gently unravels the tale of three travelers defying death, and each receiving a deceptively wonderful gift from the reaper. The animation (which from what I can tell was done in-house, directed by Ben Hibon) is definitely a highlight of the entire series.
That same height of technical sophistication is met by all elements of the film, from the photography to the sound to the visual effects. Deathly Hallows eclipses the high standard set by the previous films, including Half-Blood Prince, which was one of the most beautifully shot films of its year. Snow-covered forests, beach-side rock formations, sloping plains, and even downtown London allow for the most diverse visual palette a Potter film has yet included, and new-to-the-franchise cinematographer Eduardo Serra knocks it out of the park. In particular, a chase sequence through the forest is shot in the handheld style that has grown so popular (and I typically hate), yet each shot manages to stay centered on the subject so that no action is ever unclear.
The fantasy that permeates the film is not always so easily captured though, and Yates employs sound to engage the magic in some wonderful ways. The Horcrux locket that brings our characters so much trouble makes its presence known with a nearly constant scraping glass sound that indicates both its sentience, and ill-intentions. Each spell makes its own distinct sonic impact when cast, with the effortless power of wizards like Hermione and Snape felt as much as seen. Perhaps my favorite piece of the soundtrack involves Hermione’s routine casting of assorted protection spells wherever the trio settles camp. One of those spells is the muffliato charm that keeps them from being heard- when a group of “snatchers” (mercenary wizards that roam around capturing those wanted by the ministry) pass near the camp, there is a wonderfully choreographed sequence that has the camera moving in and out of the sonically protected bubble, while the soundtrack perfectly clarifies how the spell is working. It’s a great moment and very much represents how Yates is employing high-level techniques to tell the story.
Naturally CGI comes into play frequently in a film like this, and it is the high-benchmark kind of work you would expect from one of the most well-resourced films yet made. There are still a few large-scale effects shots that don’t quite cross the mark of being believable but, as if the effects crew suddenly realized they were going to be employed in important scenes of drama, the more detailed animation work on creatures like the House Elves is finally up to standard. Major credit must also be given to the crew for their horrifying visualization of a Horcrux’s destruction, which results in a legitimately disturbing, Lovecraftian mass of swirling, almost-demonic darkness. The pulsating cloud assaults Ron with imagery designed to break him, including a vision of a sexualized Harry and Hermione that plays to his deepest fears and jealousies. It’s difficult to describe, and would be a great scene in any movie, but when involving these characters we feel so much attachment to, it’s a powerful moment to witness.
While the Deathly Hallows maintains pretty strict fidelity to the books, the last few movies have taken the time to insert a few clever invented scenes that add to the story in ways only film can. You see this demonstrated in Yates’ films specifically when the magic world and the real world collide. Half-Blood Prince began with a short flirtatious sequence between Harry and a muggle waitress, interrupted by Dumbledore- it was a simple way of saying a lot about where Harry was as a character. Hallows takes similar advantage of the time gained by compressing parts of the books to insert small moments, like a waitress oblivious to a wizarding battle because of her headphones, that engage the differences between the magic of the wizarding world and the muggle world. There is a simple but emotionally complex scene between Harry and Hermione during Ron’s absence that is wonderful. It acknowledges the long-standing frustration of many fans that the two didn’t end up as partners without betraying the relationships as they played out- it is emotionally ambiguous for both characters, and is open for interpretation. It’s nice to see the filmmakers taking a moment to engage these characters in a uniquely cinematic fashion that accentuates what we we’re used to, without outwardly changing it. Watching these films always brings the disappointing realization that this or that sub-plot or character backstory is being omitted, and additions like this are the way these films become something more than just visual companions to the books.
Not everything is perfect though- ultimately the film is stretching a lot of plot a long way, while pushing a lot of important content to the second film. This is done in the quest for a solid emotional ledge, which is accomplishes, but there was a more meaningful conflict that could have presented and resolved and it’s a damn shame the film ignores it. The books have Harry struggling to decide between going after the remaining horcruxes or trying to gather the Deathly Hallows to acquire their unique power. This is a choice that Dumbledore has left Harry, with his influence and clues leading him to the proper conclusion. We get the background on these items for sure, but this difficult choice isn’t engaged much, and I see no specific reason why it couldn’t have been. Harry’s decision would have been a nice punctuation mark on the film, and its absence is definitely felt. This also means some of the depth of Dumbledore’s backstory is left out, though those details are far less important for the film to cover. These things keep the film from being their own fully valuable interpretations of the story, rather than mere visual adaptations. The filmmaking grammar these films have developed is too sophisticated to ignore though, and is the key value that has made the last few entries so memorable. I’ll be interested to see how both halves of Deathly Hallows play together- perhaps the subtle shots and allusions to the extra details in the novels add up to them being more present than they are in each single film.
While it can’t hit every detail, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I sets the stage for a triumphant end to the series. The important characters are finally given their due, and the adult complexity that their relationships have taken on are the primary focus. The bigger thematic concerns are not as deftly handled, but enough is established that the pay-offs that are punted to the second film could still be caught. Let us all hope the second-half manages to maintain the same level of quality, and skimps a little less on the more complex levels of the good vs evil subtext. There will be no more second chances after Part II, no time to fill out any overlooked characters or right any more wrongs. Part I has the luxury of a long running time and less jam-packed of a plot to really delve deeply into Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s relationship, but it will all be for naught if Part II doesn’t manage its bloat without shortchanging all of the other supporting characters we’ve grown to love. So far, so good- but the real test comes next year, when Harry Potter’s time on the silver screen finally comes to a close.
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