Monday, November 22, 2010

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" — movie review

Movie: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Length: 27 min (we say; they say 146 min)
Rated: PG-13
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
Director: David Yates


The seven Harry Potter books had one author, but the first seven Harry Potter movies have had several different directors and writers — and it has shown. The cinematic approach has morphed from filmed-book (The Sorcerer's Stone, movie #1) to movies-inspired-by-the-book (The Order of the Phoenix, movie #5). Every Harry Potter fan will have his own choice as to what has been the best or worst movie, but in my view, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is the best of the seven.

The movie takes off shortly after the events of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which ended with Professor Snape killing Albus Dumbledore, Harry purposing to leave school to pursue dark wizard Voldemort, and his friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley pledging to join him.

As the movie opens, we find new Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy) trying to encourage the wizarding world amid the dark times looming. It's an effective opening to a movie that is significantly darker than all the preceding.

Then we find the three friends independently making preparations to travel — but where to? This question of "What do we do now?" looms large over the entire movie, as Dumbledore seems not to have given Harry the specifics of what comes next. The fate of the wizarding world lies in the hands of three teen-agers; and not the wizarding world alone, but the non-magical world as well. Voldemort means to purge the magical world of opponents and the "impure," and to force Muggles (non-magical people) down to slavery, by killing or controlling them, or sexually assaulting them at airports.

Okay, that last part is someone else's idea of "inconvenient but necessary"; Voldemort might find it amusing, though. On which subject (Voldemort, that is; not harassing citizens), we see a good deal more of Voldemort in this movie, observe the intimidation and terror under which even his supporters live. In a very effective early scene, Jason Isaacs's Lucius Malfoy vividly communicates a character about to jump out of his skin for fear of Ralph Fiennes' silky, serpentine Voldemort.

It is a scene eloquently tense for its understatedness, at a long table-full of perfectly-cast actors convey an atmosphere of drum-tight tension, as a victim (barely noticed until the end) hovers overhead, effectively paralyzed.
An aside: oddly, famed critic Roger Ebert wrote, "The film opens with a frightening meeting of the Ministry of Magic, plotting the destruction of all three young heroes." Which is fine, except that (A) it isn't the film's opening, (B) it isn't a meeting of the Ministry of Magic, and (C) they do not even mention Ron or Hermione, who are of no interest to Voldemort, whatever. Otherwise, spot-on.
It is this sort of scene that marks the excellence of this seventh installment. Director David Yates and cinematographer Eduardo Serra show an eye for eloquent subtlety, which is far more effective than ham-fisted statements. Yates' actors do not say, "Boy, I am really scared/worried/devoted/defiant" — instead (listening, George Lucas?) they show it, and the camera-composition and directions convey mood and feeling in deftly-composed shots and vignettes. Ron and Hermione, asleep, their hands stretched out to one another, but not quite touching. Hermione saying "We're alone," as the camera draws back and darkness envelops the three.

Further, Yates eschews most director's addiction to endlessly splicing together one-face shots. Rather, he allows his actors to frame the shot together and react off of each other. The result is some marvelous sequences, from large ones such as Voldemort's "board meeting," to a scene involving many of the major characters about to transfigure into the same character.

The heart of the film is the relationship between the three principles, and they have never been better. My dear wife and I feared, in the fifth movie (Order of the Phoenix) that Emma Watson had forgotten how to act. No longer. Watson's embodiment of Hermione Granger is note-perfect, by turns moving, touching, amazing, and deftly, hysterically funny. No less skilled is Rupert Grint as Ronald Weasley, given the task of showing loyalty and love, despair and anger — all of which he does as if born to the role.

Unfortunately, Daniel Radcliffe's Harry is probably the least effective. Radcliffe is not a poor actor, but he is of limited range, and this movie shows it. Radcliffe's voice seems only to vary in volume rather than pitch, and his range of facial expression falls well short of Grint's. Perhaps it reflects Radcliffe's vision of Harry, because in a scene where the one actor portrays seven different actors as one character, he's very creative and clever. But mostly he either looks expressionless, unhappy, or a bit peeved. More would have been better.

At 146 minutes the movie is long, yet it moves right along, though not mindlessly so. The pacing pauses to deepen the plot, then plunges into action. For instance, one scene involving Harry and Hermione moves wordlessly from sadness, to laughter, then back to sadness. There are mad chases, explosive fights, sudden attacks; dances, flights, debates.

Though one might wish that John Williams had returned to score the final movie, Alexandre Desplat's score is very effective, now sighing and slinking, now jolting and thrilling, punctuating the action on the screen. The effects are amazing, with one exception: the Patronuses, luminous creatures summoned by the wizards. This has long been a geeky gripe of mine. The books make a good deal out of Harry's fully-formed stag Patronus, which first appeared as described in the third movie (Prisoner of Azkaban) — but Yates or his crew unaccountably traded that in for gauzy, indistinct, barely-identifiable luminescences. Animals that should be easily recognized — which is an important plot-element — instead are vague and sometimes formless.

By contrast the elf Kreacher, barely seen as a last-minute addition in The Order of the Phoenix, is perfectly realized here, and fully inhabits the frame with the flesh-and-blood actors.

Will the movie make sense to anyone who hasn't seen the previous movies, or read the books? I doubt it, at this point. A lot of essential backstory is assumed, and I think it'd be hard to come up to pace without it.

To Christians who reject the series on principle, this movie emphasizes an important point: magic is not held out as something to be aspired to. For one thing, there is an unbridgeable gap between the magical world and the common. Magic cannot be attained, in author Rowling's world. One is born magical, or he is not. Second, the magical world is ugly. Their justice system is unjust and powerless, and those wielding power are often flawed, petty, dangerous.

How does the movie rate in terms of faithfulness to the book? Overall, I'd rate the movie very well, far better than the preceding two. Most of the changes Yates introduces actually enhance the story, with exceptions that I will note in the Spoiler section.

In pre-spoiler sum: would I recommend it? Enthusiastically yes, if you enjoy dark fantasy of this kind. I would caution that the PG-13 is to be taken seriously, and I wouldn't bring younger, more impressionable children unfamiliar with the story. There is a fair bit of magical violence, a touch of harsh language and sensuality, and dark, tense tones.

Finally: Watch for the Bible verse on the headstone of Harry's parents. I expect to revisit this with you when the final movie is released, next July.

Now: read no further, if you haven't seen the film and/or read the book.





SPOILER-HEAVY NOTES — for true Potterheads

One change absolutely baffles me: why in the world is Dobby still dressed as a slave, and why in the world does Yates omit Harry putting a sock in Dobby's grave? Movie-Dobby proudly proclaims that he is a free-elf... still wearing that pathetic sack of a garment. Then Harry buries him, and I'm waiting for him and Ron to lay a sock with him, and perhaps Hermione a scarf — but nothing. Why? It was such a touching element in the book, would have taken fifteen seconds and no special-effects money, and would have deepened the emotional resonance of the scene. This omission makes no sense at all.

Another scene really irritates me: Hermione, my favorite character, is being tortured upstairs. In the book, it is clear that it is Harry's fault they are captured, and so it is Harry's fault that Hermione is tortured — and his lack of remorse after is something that bothers me about the book. At least Ron is frantic, hearing Hermione's screams, desperate to escape and save her.

But the movie is far worse. They can all hear Hermione, their best friend and often their savior, screaming in fear and pain... and, after initial distress, they pretty much forget her. Oh, hi Luna. So you're here? Cool! Ollivander, huh? I'll be. Oh, and look, Dobby! Excellent. So, Dobby, you just take these good people out while Hermione distracts the enemy by screaming in agony under unknown torture upstairs, and we'll just wait right here....

Really. Bothers. Me.

Now here's a funny thing. The filmmakers didn't see fit to include Sirius' mirror in movie #3, so Harry never broke it, so he doesn't have a shard of it. But that shard needed as a plot-device in this movie, so... presto! Here it is. With no explanation whatever, and no real surprise on Radcliffe's expressionless face when he appears to see Dumbledore in it, or the windows of some room when his forest should be reflected.

I just think that's funny. Did they say, "Maybe no one will notice"? Anyone who hasn't read the books will be absolutely clueless ("So where'd he get the magic mirror-piece?").

That said, I'd rather they just hum a little tune and slip it in, than invent some new device to save them from their earlier omission. It is an element that will become important... or, should, if they hew to the book.

I'm regretful that they haven't given Harry green eyes, and stressed in the narrative that Harry's green eyes mirror his mother's green eyes. There's a moving scene in the remainder of the book which they'll obviously be unable to film as written, as a consequence. Pity, that, with colored contact lenses so readily available.

There are odd notes, as well. Nobody seems too shook-up over Mad Eye's death. Whoops! Move on! Bye, Alastor! Well, not even that.

Worse, Molly — one of the most criminally short-changed characters in this series of movies — doesn't try to do anything for her terribly injured son George except look sadly at him. She doesn't even clean off the blood! And what exactly happened to George? I still see his ear, under all the blood.

Also, Harry gets over Hedwig's death a lot faster than he does Dobby's. 

And what's with the Bathilda Bagshot sequence? It's pretty terrific and creepy... until Nagini apparently tries to kill Harry. What's that about? Voldemort stressed that he had to be the one to kill Harry Potter. So Nagini's gone rogue? Unlikely. Why not just do it as in the book, have Nagini trying to hold Harry until Voldemort's arrival, with Hermione once again saving their lives, if just barely?

The Lovegood sequence also seems not-fully-thought-through. Xenophilius says Luna will be along shortly... then everyone forgets about her. Tea is made, stories are told, the day goes on, and no one asks, "So, where is Luna, anyway?" — as they do in the book. So why do the Death Eaters apparently immediately start setting about destroying Lovegood's place, when he was trying to turn in Harry Potter? If the Death Eaters had killed Harry, wouldn't Voldemort have gone medieval on them? Doesn't make sense.

But then again, so much is done so well: the seven Harry's, the flight from the Death Eaters, Ron's return. The three actors who play the trio Polyjuiced at the Ministry are absolutely wonderful. As I said, even the additions are good, particularly Hermione Obliviating her parents, Ron and Hermione at the piano, and Harry dancing with Hermione.

Terrific movie, best of the lot.

Hope the final one hews even closer to the book. If Molly doesn't get her big scene, I'll be royally cheesed.


JMJ said...

Haven't read your review past your comment about "best one yet", because I want to see the movie fresh.

but I have one question:

did you see it in 3-D or Imax or the "old fashioned way? If so, do you think it's worth it?

DJP said...

I don't think it's even out in 3D; they decided not to do a half-good job on it.

Midnight showing 12:01 Friday morning was a regular screen, last night was in one of those almost-IMAX extreme digital screens. We liked them both. Some of the sound and detail and action is better seen on the larger screen.

See it, come back, read the review, tell me what you thought.

GrammaMack said...

"To Christians who reject the series on principle"

I've steered clear of it due to early reports that it used actual spells from so-called witches. My sons loved the books and wouldn't miss the movies. Your enthusiasm for it is causing me to re-evaluate, and I'd appreciate you sharing your reasoning, if you don't mind.

DJP said...

Sure, GM.

First, I'd say there are no "real" spells, in that there are no combinations of words that make things happen. Christians who fear such are, in my opinion, being superstitious.

Second, I'd say that reading even a narrative about witches which includes "real" spells used by Wiccans or druids or whatever is no more advocacy necessarily than reading what the Serpent says in Genesis 3.

Third, some may be based on spells some have used in the past, but the overwhelming majority are simply made up from fragments of Greek, Latin, Hebrew and English words. Many of the names she uses (Voldemort, Umbrage, etc.) are the same way.

Next point = somewhat spoilery

Fourth, when and if you read the seventh book, you'll see she's taking the whole thing in the direction of telling the Gospel similar to Lewis. By that I mean not that it is derivative, but that it is a similar isolation of elements of the Gospel, by no means a full-orbed re-telling.

Kirby said...

I look forward to the movie after having "read" the last 3 books about 18 months ago. AND, I'm totally glad they split the 7th book into two movies so that they could get more detail in. I listened to the books unabridged on tape while I drove. I saw the earlier movies so had a general idea of the main elements.

My kids were able to fill me in on the backstory I may have missed about certain elements. I found the whole thing imaginative. Imaginative. Horcruxes. Petronuses. Platform 9-1/2. Snape.

This actually allowed me to have conversations with some of my kids about realities of friendship, courage, evil, and creativity.

And in the end...oh wait, we're not there yet.

GrammaMack said...

Thanks, Dan. That's a big help. Perhaps I will borrow the first book from one of my sons and see what it is they love about them.

BrettR said...

I was worried when you opened the review with referring to this movie as the best of the lot. There were so many pacing issues, plot gaps, and head scratching edits that I couldn't believe that you would give it a great review.

But you didn't. You simply said it was the best of the movies so far. You pointed out just a few of the directors gaffs in portraying the story and showed many other short comings. Your assessment of the acting was spot on.

This is a great movie in punctuated sections; Half the time I was saying, "Stay here a little longer," and others, "Get on with it already." Emma Watson was fantastic. She did not have to utter a word in this film for her to steal every scene. Characters are raw and not prettied up, the only character not ashen with lament is Voldemort and even heat is a frustrated player.

Great review (though I liked Azkaban better as a movie missing broken mirror included). This movie did not make me thirst for the next one. I will be anticipating it, but I can easily wait for 8 months.

CGrim said...

"...a touch of harsh language and sensuality..."

Presumably in the airport-security scene.

Sir Aaron said...

Does Rowling purport to be a Christian? I've generally avoided the books and movies, but that's an easy approach when neither interests me personally.

DJP said...

In short, yes.

Kris said...

My friend and I (who have both read the books and seen the movies) liked this movie, though we were disappointed with some of the changes. During the scene with Bathilda, we both looked at each other and said "Hunh?" Overall, though, I agree with you Dan that it was well done and followed the book much better than some of the previous ones.


Also, I believe in the book Harry takes Draco's wand by force by overpowering him, which is a big deal in the second half of the last book, and in the movie, he just sort of takes it and says "oh, sorry."

DJP said...

Yes! you're right. A friend and I were just discussing that yesterday. It can still be made to work, since Harry did take it; but it isn't the same, and wasn't a necessary change.

That's the thing about these changes I object to. It isn't that I think failed to accomplish something, it's that I don't see any purpose, any gain, to them.

Cathy said...

I didn't see any comments on the kissing scene that's getting hyped so much. I've got Christian friends who insist no parents of boys approaching puberty can be doing their job of protecting their child's purity if they allow them to see that scene. Others seems to blow it off a bit more and just intend to discuss it. What say you guys?

DJP said...

In that the movie depicts it as a brief evil image sent from an evil source to an evil end, it didn't bother me.

But fathers should follow their own convictions, of course.

Kris said...


....and that the characters also realize it's from an evil source, I didn't see a problem with it. It is pretty brief. The scene itself is pretty intense...who wants to hear out loud the deepest, darkest insecurities one has about oneself? Yikes!

Brad Williams said...

The worst thing about this movie is that it saddens me that the rest weren't done so well. What missed opportunities!

JMJ said...

I saw it finally on Friday. Spent an extra 6 bucks on IMAX.

I'm not sure it was worth it, but...whatever.

As for the movie, I am neither impressed nor unimpressed. They missed enough of the book for it not to be Potter-fan-snobbery to point it out, but they fit a lot more than I expected.

Having read the book, I'd give it 6.5 out or 10. If I didn't read the book and judge the movie on its merits, I'd give it a 7.5 or 8

DJP said...

I have to say, though: we're reading through it with the boys, and I again and again am being impressed with just how much made it straight from book to movie, in terms of exact dialogue and actions. Even an important point I thought was at variance turned out to be exactly as in the book.