Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1: Deathly still

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010) • View trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.19.10

Much has changed since this film series began in 2001, starting with its young stars, who’ve grown up – along with their characters – while we watched.

Think back to 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone … Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint were so young.
Cornered within the Malfoy estate, with an injured Hermione (Emma Watson)
barely able to stand, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, left) and Ron (Rupert Grint) must
place their fate in the hands of Dobby, the house elf (behind the group).

The most telling transformation, however, has been subtle and a lot more disturbing. The frivolous, kid-oriented delights and challenges of that first book and accompanying film – sorting hats, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, quidditch matches, petulant bullies and 12-foot trolls running rampant in the Hogwarts girls’ bathroom – have given way to child-abusing adults, soul-sucking phantasms, the vicious insanity of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, such a chilling villainess), the malevolent plots of He Who Must Not Be Named (Lord Voldemort, brought to nightmarish life by Ralph Fiennes) and the ill treatment, torture and even death of secondary characters.

With the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – the first of two halves, at any rate – filmgoers now know what J.K. Rowling’s fans found out, when they devoured this seventh and final book upon its release in the summer of 2007: We definitely ain’t in Kansas any more.

The nasty, world-shattering behavior once left at the edges, and then generally tempered by young love and other teen-oriented pursuits, has taken center stage. Dark times have erupted, and Harry, Hermione and Ron seem utterly helpless to do anything about it.

And that’s rather a problem.

Our three young heroes spend a serious chunk of this picture on the run, camping out in various desolate locales while hoping to evade Voldemort’s followers. Harry and his two best friends bicker amongst themselves, which frankly became tiresome one or two films ago … and even if this rising mutual antagonism is nurtured by an evil locket, it still feels like a serious case of Been There, Done That.

Mostly, though, we wait for something to happen, much the way Harry and his friends await the worst. Although the opportunity for character development is welcome – particularly since it has been too frequently absent, during the more recent films drawn from Rowling’s ever-longer novels – director David Yates never convinces me that this entire film, all 146 minutes of it, is little more than a lenthy prologue for The Good Stuff to come in the second half, due out next summer.

Yep, this one’s just a time-filler, to whet the appetite. That’s rather irritating.

And despite the considerable skill of screenwriter Steve Kloves, who has lived in this fantasy world for an entire decade – having managed the herculean task of adapting six of these seven novels to the big screen, taking a break only from book five, Order of the Phoenix – far too much of Rowling’s rich detail has been left behind.

I really hoped this would be less of a problem, when granted twice the length (between both halves of this final installment) to do justice to the 759 pages of Deathly Hallows.

Alas, not really.

Yates and Kloves begin well, with their film’s most poignant scene, as Hermione quietly wipes her entire existence from the memories of her two parents, her image vanishing from a series of pictures throughout the Granger household. Her reasons are complicated but mostly protective: Knowing what is to come, as Voldemort and his Death-Eaters embark on a Nazi-esque purge of those who aren’t pure-blood witches and wizards, Hermione doesn’t want her mother and father endangered by virtue of their relationship to her.

This scene demonstrates the depth and sensitivity of the actress Watson has become, the wash of emotions on her face echoing soundlessly as she goes about this sad task. Radcliffe’s Harry may be this trio’s stalwart hero, but Watson’s Hermione is the group’s heart and soul. Watson carries much of this story’s emotional weight, but also delivers what little humor these dire events allow; watch her sideways smirk when Ron, hoping to get back into her good graces after some ill-advised behavior, suggests a show of hands to “vote” for one of her suggestions.

But that comes later. Initially, as this tale hits the ground running, Voldemort and his minions are after Harry: a task made much easier now that the boy no longer has the protection of his mentor, the benevolent Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore (dispatched by the vile Professor Snape at the end of the previous film). Harry’s friends and allies therefore gather in order to move him to safer quarters; that plan goes awry during a (rare) breathless sequence that claims the lives of two characters, one of these an aching loss.

When our stalwart band pauses long enough for a wedding – a rather ill-advised attempt to “carry on,” given the circumstances – this event, as well, erupts into chaos. Harry, Hermione and Ron are magicked away to downtown London, where they consider their next move.

But this is a problem, because we’re scarcely half an hour into the film, and our three heroes have been separated from the rich cast of supporting characters that Rowling developed over the course of six increasingly dense novels. It’s not merely a matter of never again seeing any of these folks for the rest of this film – Ginny Weasley and her twin brothers, Hagrid, Remus, Tonks or many others – we don’t even know what happened to them. Nor will we find out, until next July.

The fates of this term’s crop of Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff students are left to a stray radio broadcast and an eyeblink scene aboard the Hogwarts Express. This film never visits Hogwarts, instead confining most of its “action” – or lack thereof – to scenes of Harry, Hermione and Ron wandering eerily deserted landscapes that suggest the remnants of a post-apocalyptic civilization.

No joke: Based on what we see in this film, we can’t help feeling that Voldemort and his followers have vanished the world’s entire human population … which definitely isn’t what went down in Rowling’s book.

At its core, this story is a slow race on both sides: Voldemort wants to acquire the three elements that form the so-called Deathly Hallows, which will grant him unlimited power; Harry, Hermione and Ron are searching for the remaining horcruxes, the magical objects that hold pieces of Voldemort’s soul. (A few of these have been dealt with in earlier books.)

Given such a structure, this film should have been an exciting, episodic contest of sorts, as Harry and his friends try to evade Voldemort’s minions while seeking and destroying at least a few more horcruxes. But it doesn’t work out that way; after a spiffy early sequence when Harry, Hermione and Ron sneak into the Ministry of Magic in order to snatch the aforementioned evil locket from the odious Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, appropriately icky), they spend the rest of the film trying to figure out how to destroy the damn thing, while succumbing to cabin fever. They never get anywhere near any of the remaining horcruxes, all of which – three or four, depending on how one counts – have been saved for Part 2.

Frankly, it becomes boring. Dull, dull, dull. No surprise, since this entire film is merely a warm-up for the final act.

And nagging questions remain. Why do Harry and his friends get spotted by two stray baddies so quickly, in downtown London? Who, precisely, betrayed the Order of the Phoenix to Voldemort? How do Voldemort and his followers so easily overwhelm the entire Ministry of Magic? What’s with the silent old woman in the shack, and her rather unexpected transformation? Why doesn’t the disgraced Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) every say anything?

Book-readers know all the answers, of course, but – and I’ve said this before, when discussing this series’ big-screen adaptations – movies must stand on their own.

This first half of Deathly Hallows may be well-mounted – the production values are top-notch, as always for this series – but it’s still only a tantalizing appetizer for a main course yet to come.

A tease, and little more.

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