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Matt's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 Review
I think at this point it is safe to say that, never in the entire history of filmmaking or literature has there been a series quite like Harry Potter. In the case of the films, I don’t think we’ve ever seen a movie or series of movies more reliant on its source material than Harry Potter. The nature of the business is that the more densly plotted the novels are, the harder it is to adapt the story, in its entirety, to the screen. This has been an ongoing issue that’s become, if anything, more prevalent in the last decade, particularly with the adaptations of Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter – two series of books with ridiculously large and rabid fanbases. The Harry Potter series as a whole is relatively critic-proof at this point. If you’ve seen a few of the movies and haven’t enjoyed them, then this film isn’t going to turn you into a fan. The good news is, this movie is good, really good.
- The split – This is important to touch on since it is the first time it’s ever really been done. For those that don’t know, the basic idea was that since the Harry Potter books had become more and more densely written and plotted, the seventh book would be nearly impossible to adapt into a single film while preserving a coherent narrative. The split occurs about half way through the plot as outlined in the novel. The effect of ending the movie half way through the story was an interesting one. I was braced for the fact that it was going to happen, but going in I wasn’t 100% clear as to where in the plot the split-point was going to be. I have to say, I thought it was well done. It left me wanting the next part – a similar feeling I had watching Lord of the Rings – but it wasn’t at all abrupt or jarring.
I’ve heard a few critics pan the film due to the split, saying the adaptation could have been accomplished in one film. As someone who grew up in the 1990s when miniseries’ were still being done (many of which clocked in at 4+ hours), the idea of a 5 hour Harry Potter movie (2 2.5 hour films), doesn’t bother me one bit – on the contrary, I think it’s awesome. Furthermore, I think they should have split movies 4, 5, and 6 as well. 20/20 hindsight, c’est la vie.
- The Supporting Cast (or lack therof) – I think pretty much everyone who saw this film, acutely felt the absence of almost all the supporting characters (and A-list British talent). The issue is that, as highly as I regard this film, I can’t pretend that I didn’t notice. I did notice, and it did somewhat detract from the experience. Part of the fun of watching the previous installments of this series is seeing the unprecedented range of veteran British performers sharing the screen. However, I think the absence of the supporting cast just added to the feeling of isolation prevalent in the film. Make no mistake, this film shows the three core characters in their darkest hour. This movie is grim, and it’s meant to be so.
- Pacing – Pacing has been an ongoing problem in this series. And it’s no surprise what with the rotating directors and the gradual evolution of the source material. The later novels were much more densely plotted than the earlier. Aided by the fact that it’s adapting half of the final novel instead of the whole novel, this installment is much more steady and deliberate in its pacing. There were maybe one or two sequences that I deemed a little rushed, but nothing particularly jarring, nothing like the breakneck pacing I saw in the fifth film (a good chunk of which was little more than montage). For the most part, the filmmakers seemed to have made a conscious effort to slow the pacing down, and focus on the evolution of the characters. Let me be clear, this is not a boring film. There’s plenty of action to be found between the ministry sequence, that awesome ambush at the café and the scenes at Malfoy Manor, but there’s a much greater emphasis on characterization and performance in this installment. That the film is paced more deliberately will probably make it a bit harder to swallow for the casual fan, but I doubt many Harry Potter fans will have any trouble with it.
- If there are any real red flags with this film, it’s this: because the adaptations of movies 4 and 5 were so tightly executed, a few plot elements from Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix were lost in the proverbial shuffle and have been unceremoniously tossed back into the film. The shard of Sirius’ mirror, and Dobby the House Elf are the two biggest examples of what I’m talking about. Simply put, if you’ve read the books, you’ll know exactly what the shard of mirror is, and where it came from, and you’ll also have no problem remembering who Dobby the house elf was. For fans that have stuck to the movies, Dobby hasn’t appeared at all since Chamber of Secrets (movie 2), and the origin of the mirror was omitted from Order of the Phoenix. This creates an interesting reliance on the source material, and it seems clear that the filmmakers are counting on the majority of their audience to have read the novels. This is an unprecedented flaw, because it compromises the ability of the movies to function as entities separate from the novels. How you feel about that, depends on the sort of viewer that you are. As someone who thinks very highly of film as a medium, my opinion on this matter is quite simple: if they hadn’t butchered the adaptations of Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix in the first place, they never would’ve ran into this problem. You can either use the books as a guide and make changes to the story so it will work better on film (like what they did with Lord of the Rings), or you can use the basic concept of the novels and go in a completely different direction (like what happened with the Jason Bourne series). You can’t do both.
The trio have outdone themselves on this one, each of them showing great range and amazing emotional depth that they’ve never previously exhibited. None of them really steal the show, in my opinion, but all of them have their moments of greatness.
- Daniel Radcliff has come a long way. Looking at this film, I can only assume that taking to the stage did a lot for his craft. The fact that the writing in this film is so much better than it was in the last 3 installments probably made a huge difference. He had a hell of a lot to work with here. He plays his part perfectly, looking on the edge of falling apart for the bulk of the film – which is exactly where the character is at for this part of the story.
- Emma Watson shows signs of greatness to come in this role. As opposed to previous films where she might’ve overdid it on the drama, in this installment, she plays Hermione as rather subdued, but still very intense. Her heartbreak with Ron’s departure, and her sheer terror when she faces Bellatrix (Helena Bonham Carter) at the end, are amazing to watch.
- Of all the performances in the film, none was more surprising than Rupert Grint. Ron goes through a very tough and emotionally complex arc in this film. Grint plays him with simmering anger and darkness that made for more than one riveting sequence. Particularly effective was the scene when he and Harry have their argument in the tent.
Music, Cinematography and Special Effects
- The score of this film, composed by Alexandre Desplat, is a most welcome and unexpected pleasure. The Harry Potter franchise had been struggling in the music department since John Williams’ departure after Prisoner of Azkaban. A revolving door of composures yielded scores that were inconsistent at best, until this one, which is beautifully executed from beginning to end. There’s a noticeable lack of themes from the Williams compositions in this one, but there’s a number of techniques that Desplat uses throughout the score, that are straight out of John Williams’ playbook. This is the best score the Harry Potter series has seen since Prisoner of Azkaban, bar none.
- The cinematography in this film is really well done. Away from the safe and familiar confines of the Hogwarts grounds, the trio’s journey takes them through all sorts of landscapes. I found the changes in the scenery somewhat invigorating after six straight movies taking place in the same location. However, the cinematography is framed to match the tone of the film, the colors are very muted, and there is very little sunlight to speak of. The desolation of the landscapes mirrors the hearts of the characters, who are becoming more and more desperate in their circumstances.
- Many will notice the special effects in this particular installment are rather sparse. As well done as they are, you’ll see precious little magic as you’ve known it in the previous installments. The action sequences are filmed in a style not unlike combat sequences in recent war films, fast, brutal, handheld camera-work and sometimes, no music at all. However, just because we don’t notice too many special effects does not mean that they aren’t there. My personal favorite was probably the decoy detonator they use in the ministry.
The Bottom Line
If you like Harry Potter, you’re going to see this movie no matter what I or any other critic has to say on the subject. The good news is, you’re unlikely to regret it. I really liked this film; I thought the pacing was good, I thought the production was incredible. It was everything I could’ve hoped for both as a movie fan, and a Harry Potter fan. The best advice I could give you though is this, you should definitely read at least the first 6 Harry Potter novels before seeing Deathly Hallows Part 1. This film requires the exposition provided by those novels to serve as a coherent narrative. I like my fantasy dark, scary and hard-hitting. Deathly Hallows fit the bill perfectly, and I couldn’t give it any higher praise than that. 9/10