Posts in: November 20th, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)

I haven’t read a single Harry Potter book, which I say not to beam with aloof hipster pride so much as to explain why the films haven’t worked for me since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. My assumption, erroneous though it may be, is that as the books get denser, the stories get harder to adapt. Either series screenwriter Steve Kloves, for all his strengths (he wrote two wonderful films, Racing with the Moon and The Fabulous Baker Boys, the latter of which he also directed), isn’t up to the challenge, or he’s hamstrung by a studio’s desire to bring all the big moments of the books to the screen at the expense of narrative coherence, character development, and common sense.

That’s my only issue with these films, which are exceptionally well-made and well-acted (particularly by the older actors—never again will such great British actors be assembled together on the screen). Starting with …Goblet of Fire, I’ve left every single movie wondering what the hell just happened. It’s not that the movies are particularly fast-paced, though the frenetic editing of the action sequences sure doesn’t help. Like The Last Airbender (I hate to make this comparison, because even the worst Harry Potter film doesn’t come close to being that bad), the films move from one scene to the next with such assurance that it must make sense to people who have read the book, but the motivation for characters’ actions and the purpose of certain scenes elude me. An apparent cast of thousands flit in and out of the film willy-nilly, treated with the reverence of someone we’re supposed to know without taking the time to explain who they are (which is especially galling when they return at the eleventh hour to help save the day). When it descends, as it always does, into an orgy of noisy, effects-driven action, I can’t help getting annoyed.

The final nail in the coffin arrived with director David Yates, who took over starting with …Order of the Phoenix, and applied a gloomy, moderately pretentious mood that doesn’t quite fit with the baffling goofiness of the stories.

Well, maybe it’s not Yates’s fault. Like I say, I’ve never read the books. Maybe what he does perfectly captures their spirit. The problem is applying a dour tone and a steely-clouded, chiaroscuro aesthetic to a film that doesn’t make any sense. If a film’s going to defy logic at every turn, flooding the senses with non sequitur scenes, colorful characters who serve no purpose, and extensions of a mythology that started getting too convoluted in …Chamber of Secrets, it should at least be fun. I’m much more forgiving of nonsense when I have a good time. That’s why I love the National Treasure movies. Few films make less sense than ones where characters kidnap the President of the United States for patriotic reasons, but they’re wildly entertaining by design. If Nicolas Cage’s Leaving Las Vegas character anchored those films and set their mood, they’d drive me nuts.

I have to get that preamble out of the way to make it understood why the Harry Potter franchise simply doesn’t work for me. I want to like the movies—and I did like the first three—but when each of them requires a 30-minute conversation with someone who has read the books, they fail as cinema.

As you might recall from …Half-Blood Prince, the wizard world has basically split in two: the “death eaters,” and whatever they call the good guys. Now that Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes buried under snake-like makeup) has returned, the death eaters have effectively become magical terrorists. They know the only one who can stop them is 16-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), so killing him is their top priority.

The opening sequence finds Harry and Hermione (Emma Watson) abandoning their “muggle” (i.e., non-wizard) families because things have gotten too dangerous. Hermione goes so far as to erase her existence from her parents’ mind, but Harry’s surrogate family is more than happy to erase him from their minds themselves. After working a spell to confuse death eaters into thinking there are a half-dozen Harrys out there, they set their sights on the Weasleys’ home, but they’re immediately attacked by death eaters. This leads Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), among others, to suspect they have a mole.

What follows is a prime example of why the leaden seriousness doesn’t work. They have a mole, the death eaters are hot on the wizards’ trail, and Yates plays it as a life-or-death struggle for survival, with impressive immediacy. So why, then, do they all stop to have a patently unnecessary, lavish wedding for two characters who barely registered in previous films? Ron’s (Rupert Grint) sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), anticipates audience reaction by complaining the wedding is silly with everything that’s going on. Harry stoically responds that, because of everything that’s going on, it’s the best time to have a wedding. I tend to side with Ginny more than Harry. In a film with a lighter tone, or at least a greater willingness to admit a plot turn is goofy, this sort of development could work. Yates fills the opening minutes with far too much bleakness and suspense for anything but a wedding date delay to make sense.

What amounts to a death eater coup in the Ministry of Magic leads Harry, Ron, and Hermione to bust into the Ministry and fight terrorist fire with fire, leading to a confrontation with Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), the chief villain in …Order of the Phoenix, who now serves as a corrupt Ministry judge aligned with Voldemort. She recognizes Harry (despite the trio working a spell to make them look like Ministry officials) and summons death eaters. Adding insult to injury, propaganda literature is now circulating calling Harry “Undesirable No. 1.” This causes even non-death eaters (life eaters?) to pursue Harry with the full force of magical law, which mainly means lots of cool special effects and slow-motion running.

Ostensibly, the plot revolves around Harry’s quest to find and destroy seven “horcruxes,” objects that allow their owners immortality. Needless to say, Voldemort wants the Horcruxes. Unfortunately, Harry doesn’t have a clue how to destroy them. All he can do is hold on to them until they figure it out. This causes some tension with Ron, who rightly points out the strangeness that Dumbledore (played in flashbacks and bizarre fantasy sequences by Michael Gambon) would posthumously send Harry to destroy these objects without telling him how. The tension increases when one of the horcruxes—a locket—makes whoever wears it jealous and paranoid, sort of like the ring from Lord of the Rings.

Though I have problems with the film’s tone, the great strength of dividing …Deathly Hallows into two parts is that it can slow down in ways the previous films couldn’t. It doesn’t rush past the character moments, and it takes the time to tell a richer story instead of trying to cram the books’ greatest hits into a limited runtime. In other words: For the first time since Prisoner of Azkaban, the wildly convoluted plot managed to make sense (aside from that wedding nonsense). It ends on an abrupt cliffhanger, but for the first time in years, I’m actually looking forward to the next Harry Potter film.

Wisely, Kloves’s screenplay (and, one assumes, the book upon which it’s based) shoves Harry, Ron, and Hermione together again. I always enjoyed the dynamic of these three characters and the actors who played them, so previous films added an extra layer of disappointment by frequently separating them for long stretches. This film solves that problem by keeping them on the run together (until, at one point, locket-induced jealousy causes Ron to abandon the others), trying to unravel clues left behind by Dumbledore, find the horcruxes, and destroy them.

As usual, the film features fine performances and amazing technical bona fides. It’s a great-looking film that incorporates some surprisingly stylized sequences (notably in the explanation of the Deathly Hallows) in addition to the usual immersive CGI. My chief complaints remains the grim tone and portentous pacing, but the rest of the film works well enough to overcome that poor artistic choice.

If you’re already a Harry Potter fan, you know you’ll love this movie. Why are you even reading this? For the more casual fans like myself, I can confirm that this will renew what I assume is your waning faith in the series. It still can use these characters and this universe to tell an exciting, coherent story.

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