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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)

DIRECTOR: David Yates

CAST:

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, David Thewlis, Robbie Coltrane, Brendan Gleeson, Rhys Ifans, Bill Nighy, Bonnie Wright, Evanna Lynch, Jason Isaacs, Tom Felton, Helen McCrory, Imelda Staunton, Natalia Tena, Timothy Spall, John Hurt, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Harry Melling, Jamie Campbell-Bower, Miranda Richardson, Toby Jones (voice of Dobby), Simon McBurney (voice of Kreacher)

REVIEW:

The seven book Harry Potter series is now nearing its end with this seventh of what will be eight movies. From a financial standpoint, Warner Bros.’ decision to split the seventh and final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, into two films is a surefire financial win. As of the seventh film’s opening, Harry Potter needs ‘only’ $300 million to reach Star Wars in box office gross, a goal that seems entirely likely between the double whammy of the two-part finale. Box office tactics aside, it may still be a sound artistic choice, allowing the filmmakers to include more of J.K. Rowling’s dense final novel, which is filled to bursting with information and exposition that would be problematic to trim too liberally. From a cinematic viewpoint, however, the end result is that Part 1 feels like exactly what, for all intents and purposes, it is: an incomplete movie. The first half or so of the novel delves heavily into explanations and exposition, leaving the second half to pick up and end with a rousing climactic battle. This might work on the page, but splitting the films up leaves us here with a lot of exposition and not a lot of action. Part 1 is generally well-made, but doesn’t escape feeling like a frustratingly incomplete piece of a whole film that wets our appetite and then makes us wait until summer 2011 for the meat.

With Albus Dumbledore assassinated on Lord Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) orders, the situation is more tenuous than ever. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) go into hiding, first with the Weasleys at the Burrow, then into the woods, camping out and trying to figure out how to track down the Horcruxes, magical items containing parts of Voldemort’s splintered soul and preserving his immortality. Meanwhile, the Death Eaters kill the Minister of Magic (Bill Nighy), and take over the Ministry, turning it into a Fascist police state preaching hatred and subjugation against Muggle-borns. Cast out on their own, Harry, Ron, and Hermione must try to maintain friendships frayed by the stress of their situation, and somehow use cryptic clues in items willed to them by Dumbledore to find and destroy the Horcruxes.

The biggest problem with Part 1, besides its inevitable feeling of incompletion, is that it nearly drowns in exposition. Most of the best bits are early on, including an ominous Death Eater gathering presided over by Voldemort that involves a gruesome demise for a Hogwarts professor, an amusing sequence in which seven members of the Order of the Phoenix take polyjuice potion to transform themselves into seven Harry Potters (this involves Daniel Radcliffe wearing skirts and bras) to protect him during an evacuation attempt that turns into a breakneck airborne ambush, and a Ministry break-in. After that, our trio traipses around in the woods for the majority of the film, which limits the places the movie can go. It feels odd to have a Harry Potter movie in which we never even see Hogwarts. There’s some interesting character interactions in this middle section (including an attempt by Harry and Hermione to release tension with an impromptu dance, and more of the Ron-Hermione bickering), and a couple action sequences including a tangle with Voldemort’s pet snake Nagini and a couple quick skirmishes with Death Eaters, but most of it involves a lot of shots of picturesque forests and hills and cliffs and characters spouting exposition. More so than any other Harry Potter film, Part 1 cannot stand on its own. Anyone not intimately familiar with the entire series is in for confusion, and even those who’ve watched every movie might get lost about some details. The movie is a virtual roll call of previous characters, including some we haven’t seen for several films, like Fleur de la Coeur (Clemence Poesy), and Dobby (voice of Toby Jones), and others introduced out of nowhere like Ron’s never-before-mentioned brother Bill (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan Gleeson), who is engaged to Fleur. In the same ‘oh, by the way’ fashion, it’s mentioned that Lupin (David Thewlis) and Tonks (Natalia Tena) are married (their relationship was given far more attention in the books). It would take a strong memory to remember Mr. Ollivander (John Hurt) from his cameo in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone six movies back, when he suddenly pops up here. We get a lot of names of minor characters with various bits of exposition to provide thrown at us, and some viewers are likely to find this all a bit bewildering. Two characters’ deaths occur offscreen and are related by throwaway lines of dialogue, and the demise of Harry’s owl Hedwig is anti-climactic and doesn’t pack the wallop it should. Things pick up again a bit for the finale, as our trio is captured, and psychopathic Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) shows up, but the fact that we’re basically watching half a movie means the end note doesn’t pack much of a wallop; it just finds a decent ‘to be continued’ point and ends, leaving us entertained for the most part but not really satisfied.

On the plus side, the dark side is in full swing. Part 1 does the least pussy-footing around of any installment thus far. The PG-13 rating is warranted, and there are scenes present that are not appropriate for small children. While Bellatrix’s torture of Hermione is not really shown, the racial slur against people of mixed wizard and Muggle parentage, Mudblood, she leaves carved into her arm is. The transformed Ministry, which has a decidedly Third Reich-style feel, is appropriately ominous. Two moments with Voldemort’s enormous people-eating snake Nagini had audience members jumping in their seats. I was surprised at the poignancy of Dobby’s death considering how annoying he was in Chamber of Secrets. And the series has by far its raciest moment as Voldemort’s Horcrux toys with Ron’s mind, like the ring in The Lord of the Rings, and plays on his jealousy by conjuring an image of Harry and Hermione making out in the nude, their privates obscured by the mist flowing around them but their nudity still obvious. Harry Potter has indeed grown up.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have to carry this installment even more singlehandedly than the others, as it mostly follows the three of them on their own hiding out in the woods. While none of them are likely to be Oscar nominees any time soon, they’re likable and their acting is generally fine, if not exceptional. Grint in particular shows a little more dramatic chops alongside the comic timing he honed in Half-Blood Prince. While the supporting cast includes seemingly two-thirds of the actors in Britain, no one else has much screentime. The likes of Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs, David Thewlis, Robbie Coltrane, Natalia Tena, Brendan Gleeson, Helen McCrory, Timothy Spall, John Hurt, and Imelda Staunton make walk-on appearances, and one would have to pay careful attention to even know that Miranda Richardson and Jamie Campbell-Bower appear in the movie. Harry Melling as Dudley Dursley is never even seen from the front, and some regulars, like Maggie Smith, are absent altogether (at least for Part 1). Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter, who have gone through three movies with tantalizingly fleeting screentime in each one, get to inject touches of evilness but don’t get a chance to expand on it (here’s hoping they finally have more to do in Part 2), and Tom Felton and Bonnie Wright have one or two scenes a piece. Imelda Staunton, she of the pink cat-themed wardrobe and sanctimonious smile, returns long enough to establish that Umbridge is even more evil than she seemed in Order of the Phoenix, now collaborating with Death Eaters in Nazi-like roundups of Muggle-borns and keeping Goebbels-esque propaganda in her office with names like When Muggles Attack. Not for the first time, Umbridge is more hissable than Voldemort, but she’s only around for a few minutes. Two new cast members appear: Bill Nighy as the short-lived Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour, and Rhys Ifans as Luna’s (Evanna Lynch) father Xenophilius Lovegood, but both appear to unload some needed exposition, and their screentime is short.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 feels, for the most part, like a movie’s worth of exposition, and at the end we don’t really feel like we’ve gotten much farther into the meat of the story. Don’t take this review as too negative; it has many well-done sequences, plenty of entertaining banter, and a couple exciting action sequences. But it will take the summer 2011 release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 to make Deathly Hallows feel like a complete film.

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