Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, Signals a Satisfying Home Stretch
In traditional fashion, I saw the first Harry Potter 7 film in the theaters the weekend of its release. I didn't go at midnight as I had through the first five films because I didn't want to risk exhaustion and disappointment all at the same time (which happened on at least HP3 and HP5: see also my reviews for HP5 and HP6). I went, leisurely, the Sunday of its weekend release, with significantly lower expectations but with my inner (or not so inner) Potter-head firmly in tow.
Perhaps, it's due to all of this cautionary excitement that I actually find myself thinking this is the best Potter film to date. I know there are some who consider this installment "boring" and bereft of action, but this is the type of Harry Potter film I've been yearning for from the get-go. I also am aware that some might feel splitting the last book into two films was a vicious, thinly disguised ploy of naked capitalism, but for my money, this film (and hopefully its corresponding sequel) has become the most satisfying translation of book to screen because the filmmakers actually afforded themselves time and celluloid to meditate on those wonderful details that Potter author JK Rowling so ingeniously created while retaining the perfect flavors of David Yates' direction, who has also and easily become the best director of the series (he helmed HP 5 on through the end). What's more, the story has been portrayed so completely in this film, I think the second half will more than make up for the naysayers' whines of "this is boring; story sucks." Most of the naysayers probably never read the books, anyway, and if they have, they should remember what's coming and be thankful for this dark, almost post-apocalyptic meditation into an all-too realistic magical world, the penultimate culmination of young Potter's hero's journey.
As Deathly Hallows, Part I, opens, the Minister of Magic (Bill Nighy) is trying to convince the magical world that the ministry is remaining strong, even as Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his Death Eaters gain progressively insurmountable strength themselves. Voldemort and his followers even go so far as to meet secretly (or not so much) at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is now Headmaster, and where all plot the defeat of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) himself. Meanwhile, the Order of the Phoenix, along with Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), comes to Privet Drive in Surrey to shoo Harry's uncle, aunt, and cousin to safety and to escort him to the Weasleys' Burrows via the use of Polyjuice Potion, disguising each member of the Order to look like a Harry double as they travel via various magical means. Unfortunately, their plan is sniffed out, and Death Eaters fall upon the Order mid-transit, causing heartbreaking casualties. Though Harry arrives safely at the Burrows, having been accompanied by Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) on his flying motorcycle inherited from Sirius Black, for the wedding of Ron's oldest brother and his former Triwizard Tournament competitor, Fleur Delacour, and is reunited with Ron's sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), the wedding is also attacked. Harry realizes he must flee from all whom he loves, though Ron and Hermione insist on traveling with him, with the intention of locating the remaining Horcruxes, or splices of Voldemort's soul discovered with and explained by Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) prior to his death in HP6, and defeating the Dark wizard once and for all. Through their travels and stretches of hiding out, they also learn of the legendary Deathly Hallows, magical objects of unspeakable power, the assembly of which would make any wizard unstoppable. Harry, in one of his visions via his mysterious connection to Voldemort, comes to realize that Voldemort seeks out the Hallows to achieve his goal of ultimate power, and that Harry is running out of time to be able to fulfill his role in the prophecy stating he will ultimately bring about Voldemort's defeat.
This plot summary glosses over several spoiler-y details because, as any avid Potter fan knows, the Deathly Hallows is dense with plot and story resolution, being the final book in the series. Each page is filled to the brim with answers and cataclysmic events culminating and resulting from Harry's adventures in the previous six books. This is why, when I heard that HP7 was being split into two parts, I could not be more overjoyed. If any of the major plot details had been sacrificed to the editor's cutting room floor, there might have been a collective mutiny on the part of the rather sizable, or shall we say, global fan base.
Suffice it to say, however, Part I covers the first half of the book, and in that half, there is still some plot exposition surrounding the Horcruxes and the Hallows. Thus, it is paced similarly to the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are walking, apparating and disapparating (instantly appearing and disappearing), and puzzling out clues that will lead them to the Horcruxes and the correct methods of destruction of those Horcruxes. They are also puzzling out and testing the solidity of their friendship and facing an enemy that most of the adults in their lives would never dream of facing directly in this manner (of course, none of them are the subject of a prophecy that foretells their ultimate defeat of such an enemy). As a result, Part I is probably a bit slower, even for the Potter films, which can be lifeless hack jobs passing for adaptations, or at least have been up until this point, except for the first two. Still, the ground that is covered story-wise in this film is the most complete it has ever been, and I can't imagine any true Potter fan finding fault with the pace. I have to believe, as I've said, that the loudest naysayers are sometime Potter-viewers and never Potter readers.
Add to the satisfying storytelling the richly dark cinematography and subtly employed visual effects, and this Potter film truly borders on art, at least in ways none of the previous films have (except for, perhaps, HP3, the one directed by Alfonso Cuaron). What this film finally draws out is how Harry relates to each of the people in his life, right down to the parents he never knew, and how these relationships will finally serve him in the challenges yet to come. David Yates also painted a grim and gritty world at war, even if the world is based in a fantasy of magic. Everything is dark and sinister, and anyone can become a Death Eater lurking, or Voldemort's followers can appear from nowhere. Slower though it might be, HP7 is also a bit scary and intense at times, in a welcome and gripping way.
Because the material is heavier, darker, and more intense, the performances of the primary three actors--Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint--are the best they have ever been, which is good, because the film almost entirely centers on the three of them. Of course, there are forays into Voldemort's inner circle, and there are some fine scenes, particularly the scene in the Malfoys manor, which offer supporting players like Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange a chance to play (in her case, insanely sadistic), but otherwise, the viewer is following Harry, Hermione, and Ron almost exclusively. Since these three actors have practically grown up with each other and have always played these roles (thankfully, they were never recast as was proposed earlier in the production of these films), there is a visible level of comfort that they have with each other that truly renders suspension of disbelief. Radcliffe, in particular, has honed his craft, possibly through his stage work and other side projects. This final adventure of Harry's is the biggest challenge the hero faces, and Radcliffe was certainly up to the task of portraying his vexed, reluctant hero admirably, right down to the quiet calm and acceptance of his role in a fate he has never been able to circumvent.
Further, half of the fun of the Potter films, other than the rich world of JK Rowling being brought to visual life, is also discovering which British celebrit(ies) have been added to the roster. Nighy's appearance as Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour was all too brief, but it's nice to see him in a big budget film without tentacles attached to a computer recreated version of his face. Part II promises additional screen time for some of the actors given shorter shrift in this first half, including Rickman and Fiennes as Voldemort himself, the most perfectly cast roles in the series.
In the end, as I alluded, I find myself thinking that, ultimately, both HP7 films may be the best of the series, finally coalescing all of the best parts of the films to date into what is finally a satisfactory adaptation of the finale novel. While Part I might have been slower, and the appearances of other characters in this world all too brief, what was covered satiated my personal hunger for a good Potter film and surpassed my severely depressed expectations. Thus, I find myself rating this Potter film an 8 on the patented ratings scale for being very good but with minor flaws. Also, it obviously passes the test, since I own the first six films and am extolling the virtues of this one rather freely. I think it goes without saying, in the end, that I can hardly wait for Part II, slated for release in July 2011. Still...I don't want it to come too quickly, for then the anticipation surrounding Harry Potter and his magical world will (perhaps, to some, finally) come to an end.