Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt1
Taut and gripping, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt1 (hereafter: DH1), first half of the cinematic finale of the Harry Potter saga, evidences an on form director in Potter third timer David Yates. Yates artfully compresses the plethora of story elements with a clear editorial eye whilst remaining faithful to the intent and tone of J.K. Rowling’s final Potter book. Not as easy as it sounds, and an achievement that applies to perhaps only half of the films.
The opening scenes of DH1 find Harry and friends in an England that has fallen, once more, under the control of Lord Voldemort. Fear reigns; old prejudices are enflamed. No longer is Hogwarts the safe haven it has always been: Voldemort’s Death Eaters openly fill staff positions and Dumbledore’s killer Severus Snape sits atop the headmaster’s chair. Complex plans are afoot to help Harry escape from an increasingly frustrated Voldermort and the trio finally breakaway from the safe confines of school, friends and family, setting off to accomplish the ‘fate of the world’ task that Dumbledore has left for them. Only, things aren’t quite as straightforward as our young protagonists would hope and they spend much of their secret mission in hiding, grasping for the tiniest clue which might help guide them to the evil they’re hunting. Top this off with the problem of how to destroy each piece of their quarry before it destroys them and you can see that things are looking pretty grim.
I have to give credit to Warner Bros for agreeing to split this final book over two films. My more cynical self would say the decision is completely profit driven – cash cow, guaranteed audience and all that – but the fact remains that this releasing strategy gives the narrative room to breathe, feelings space to develop and consequences time to play out more naturally. Compare this with Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (the last film – also directed by David Yates) which boasted the same runtime to get through twice the material. Half Blood Prince ended up feeling terribly underdeveloped, jumping from one plot movement to another; ultimately delivering a less cohesive cinematic experience because of this over-compression. With DH1 Yates achieves the kind of balance he struck in his first Potter outing Order of the Phoenix (though he was doubtless helped on that occasion by the book’s obvious need for a serious edit in the first place, meaning the film was left in a good state to trim without losing too much significant content). This penultimate episode does a fine job of capturing the contrast of fits of desperate action stretched out between lengthy periods of frustrated impotence where our protagonist trio have no idea of where to go or what to do next; slowly turning their negative feelings inwards to disastrous effect.
The key performances have gotten stronger with no one being particularly distracting (as in the ‘Grint facials’ in the early films and more recent constant ‘high dramatics’ from Watson). Instead the central trio nail the tone of the long developing relationship dynamics that are being outworked in this film – namely the tension between the two boys and their Hermione and Ron’s insecurity at being constantly in the shadow of, first his overachieving brothers, and now his ‘chosen one’ of a best mate Harry Potter. I found some of Fiennes’ Voldemort moments a bit on the theatrical side but I guess old ‘Voldy’ as a character lends himself to this kind of portrayal. Jason Isaacs puts in a delicately nuanced and restrained performance as an impotent Lucius Malfoy: Voldemort’s one time right hand man who has been stripped of his wand and his dignity (which amount to the same thing – read that whichever way you will!) Add to this the ever-growing list of British A-listers filling out the minor adult roles (e.g. DH1 introduces Rhys Ifans as Xenophilius Lovegood, father of one of Harry’s close school friends, and Bill Nighy(!) as Rufus Scrimgeour, Cornelius Fudge’s successor as Minister for Magic) and you can’t but be impressed by all the acting talent involved in the production.
Aesthetically DH1 is as stunning as ever but with more of a background palette to work with seeing as the narrative is no longer confined to the Hogwarts buildings and grounds. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra (who incidentally shot the visually arresting but woefully unseen tragic-romance drama Map of the Human Heart (1993) by New Zealand director Vincent Ward) goes mad with abundant wide shots of disparate natural locations – lakes, rocky outcrops, rivers, forests, grassy plains etc.
DH1 works well as a standalone action-thriller-drama but also manages to move the overarching series story and character development forward, to successfully build anticipation for the final installment. I, for one, can’t wait!
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell