Monday, 29 June 2015

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

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 (UK/ USA, 2010)
Directed by David Yates
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter

It's very easy to hold a grudge against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows purely on the grounds of the industrial precedent it created. The financial success of splitting the last and biggest of the books into two instalments led to the same tactic being employed with Twilight and The Hunger Games, regardless of whether their respective source materials actually merited such an approach. For fans and casual viewers alike, the move smacked of wanting to milk as much as possible out of the last drops of a given franchise.

In the case of HP7a (as Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo christened it), we find the franchise finally starting to cut to the chase, beginning the build-up towards the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort. Having drawn things out for so long, putting off this inevitable showdown, there is almost a rush to get in everything that is left to be said. Under these circumstances, splitting the book into two films is almost the most logical thing to do, and while not all of it works, it does have a lot of attractive qualities.
 
The feeling that a lot is being crammed into this final act brings us back to our ongoing comparison with The Lord of the Rings. Many film fans had quibbles with the ending(s) of The Return of the King, and fans of the book were in two minds about some of the omissions, particularly the scourging of the Shire and the death of Saruman (in the theatrical cut). But even taking those as gospel truth - for the moment - Peter Jackson did quite an excellent job of balancing and converging all the different aspects of Middle Earth in the climatic battles - a much better job, in fact, than he managed recently on the third and final Hobbit film.
 
By contrast, Deathly Hallows - Part 1 has a lot of plot for us to swallow, making it simultanously one of the most satisfying and one of the most impenetrable instalments in the series. If you spent the previous two films crying out for a plot which directly focussed on the return of Voldemort and what his victory could mean for the wider world, you will find yourself openly rejoicing at the fact that this is finally being addressed. Equally, the series is so far gone and insular by this point, that if you happen to find yourself watching this by accident on late-night TV, chances are that you won't have the faintest idea what is going on.
 
The film is helped somewhat in this regard by the horcruxes, a plot device which I covered in detail in my previous Harry Potter review. All of my criticisms of this McGuffin aside, the hunt for the horcruxes gives the film structure and a definite end-point towards which we are heading. Like The Two Towers, Deathly Hallows - Part 1 ends before said end-point has been reached, but like Jackson's film there is (to some extent) a feeling of catharsis and expectation of what is to come. That being said, the death of Dobby, like Dumbledore's in the previous film, still feels like an arbitrary event, included purely because it happened in the book. For all his dramatic credentials, David Yates still hasn't grasped how to build up tension so that a death can carry meaning: it's not so much a 'shock death' as a nothing-death.
 
By focussing on the search for the horcruxes, and taking the action away from Hogwarts, Deathly Hallows - Part 1 moves the series into more candidly existential territory. Our three main characters are at their most isolated and strained since Goblet of Fire, faced with a quest which is seemingly impossible, and having to cope without either the wisdom or protection of their teachers. Kermode's comparisons with Ingmar Bergman may seem far-fetched at first glance, but there is a point behind them: there are fewer creature comforts here than in previous efforts, and like Bergman's films there is little credence given to sentimentality.
 
The aesthetic of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 reflects this desire for all the stability and comfort in Harry's world to be diminished. Eduardo Serra, who won a BAFTA for his work on Wings of a Dove, shoots the action in a more pathos-ridden manner, emphasising the stillness of the woods, the intimidating dark colours and the increasingly pallid landscapes. Yates employs more hand-held work for the chase sequences through the woods, but is also judicious in his choice of wide shots to reinforce the smallness of the characters. There are times in Alexandre Desplat's soundtrack when the world around the characters seems to creak and wail, akin to Alan Splet's extraordinary work on David Lynch's Eraserhead.
 
Two sequences in the film reinforce the feeling of gathering gloom and descending darkness better than any other. The first is the animated rendering of the Tale of the Three Brothers, whose stick-like characterisations are somewhere between Classical depictions of soldiers and the caricatures of Gerald Scarfe. The animation on its own is beautifully designed and well-told, but the sequence gives the eponymous hallows more status than they would have had if introduced through just another swathe of exposition. The tale has a Chaucerian quality to it, with Death's characterisation being as subtle and cunning as his namesake in 'The Pardoner's Tale' within The Canterbury Tales.
 
The second, equally potent sequence is the trio's infiltration of the Ministry of Magic. I mentioned in my review of Order of the Phoenix about the Ministry's design being rooted in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. What was then a mere inflection is now made flesh, with Yates borrowing heavily yet grippingly from the Michael Radford adaptation, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. The low-angle shots of the banners and wanted posters, not to mention the robotic movements of the Ministry's employees, reinforce the feeling of freedom and justice being crushed in the name of purity and homogeny. Imelda Staunton's return as Dolores Umbridge only hammers this home, taking her inevitable place as the puppet of a state governed by fear, and projecting her own self-loathing onto those she deems inferior.
In the end, however, the centrepiece of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 is the relationship between our central trio, something which is anchored us throughout the ups and downs of the entire series. Like Goblet of Fire, seeing the central three at each others' throats is completely believable, but now that the stakes are raised their every tiff or raised voice could spell disaster. Rupert Grint does especially well in conveying the frustration of his character, whether it's listening to the radio to see whether his family has been killed, or his reaction to the nightmarish visions which burst forth from the locket.
 
The only problem with the approach that Yates adopts is that the character-driven scenes begin to feel repetitive very quickly. It's not quite the case that you could show these sequences in any order you please, but the fact that Ron comes back so relatively quickly negates a lot of the emotional impact of his departure. Equally, there's little to suggest that the order in which the horcruxes are destroyed is the only order in which they could have been tackled; in this film at least, there's no progression from one to the other in terms of their potency or difficulty.
 
Another big problem with which the film is lumbered is the need to tie up a lot of the supporting storylines, often by simply killing people off. Rowling described the action of the final book as a war, and in war unpredictable deaths are to be expected. But that doesn't mean that characters and creatures to which we have dedicated several years of our lives can just be swept aside as collatoral damage. If you thought that Ginny and Harry's kiss in Half-Blood Prince came out of nowhere, a lot of Deathly Hallows - Part 1 will feel completely jarring and inert. Once again, Yates can't deliver the knock-out blow when it matters most, working so hard on a general tone that the particular moments carry no weight.
 
It's not just the death of Dobby which falls into this category; the entire Battle of the Seven Potters is a classic example of this approach. The special effects needed to create seven Daniel Radcliffes are all well and good, but the battle's choreography is choppy and disorientating; it doesn't communicate the chaos of the battle, it just leaves you wondering why they bothered in the first place. The deaths of multiple characters are treated in a lackadaisical, matter-of-fact manner, whether we see them on screen (Hedwig) or are simply told about them (Mad-Eye Moody). To top it off, Voldemort's appearance in the scene is a complete waste of time: he doesn't come across as threatening, he does nothing of significance, and he's so easily defeated.
 
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 is an intriguing, atmospheric and bleak offering which serves up a lot of good points in amongst its all-too-common drawbacks. It is perhaps the strongest of the Harry Potter films since Goblet of Fire, and unlike many of the films in the series it may well improve with repeat viewings. But while its visuals and main characters are impressive, it's ultimately hobbled or reined in by meaningless deaths and dull repetition. For fans, it's an impressive and ambitious sequel; for cynics, it's a reassurance that, very soon, this will all be over.

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NEXT REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (2011)

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