(by Dustin Putman
Ever since it was announced that "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," J.K. Rowling's final book in her blockbuster fantasy series, would be split into two movies, the debate has raged over Warner Bros. Pictures' true motive in making such a decision. Was it simply a desperate cash grab, a way to extend the franchise just a little bit further and eke out twice the box-office receipts? Or, was it really because they didn't believe they could turn the novel into a single epic feature film without sacrificing the source material? At 870 pages, fifth installment "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" ran eighty-six pages longer than "Deathly Hallows" and had no trouble being adapted into a single, economical 139-minute effort. Now that "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" has arrived in theaters, audiences can once and for all make up their own minds based on the evidence before them. In this reviewer's humble opinion, the decision was the wrong one. Article continues below
With the end of the outstanding sixth picture, 2009's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," there was the sense that the story and characters were finally boiling to a head, paving the way for an awesome, grandly-scaled finale. Instead, what we have is yet another bridge to the climactic chapter, a film that, for all of its achievements, has an unfinished story arc and a formless lack of a three-act structure. Despite adhering closely to the first half of the novel, there is a lot of extraneous fat that could have—and should have—been cut from its bones, ultimately hurting the momentum of the series' cinematic legacy. Had the whole of Rowling's tome remained intact as one motion picture, we might have had a masterpiece on our hands, a breathless, tragic, sweeping, awe-inspiring last chapter that sent the now-beloved characters out on the highest note possible. Now, alas, there is the chance that "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" will also feel like only half a film. Let's hope this isn't the case.
On the verge of turning 17, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is no longer a boy, not yet a man, but in a short period of time has had to grow up all the same. He should be returning to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for his final year of studies alongside best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), but instead the three of them are preparing for the fight of their lives. So little hope is left that they might come out in one piece, Hermione chooses to say good-bye to her parents with a spell of obliviation, erasing herself from the family photos and in the minds of her mum and dad. It'll be easier for them that way, she figures. With Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his gang of Death Eaters threatening to take over the Muggle world—a Dark Mark spotted in the sky has struck panic across London—Harry, Ron and Hermione take to the road in search of the remaining Horcruxes, shreds of Voldemort's soul that, together, give him the power of immortality. To beat him they must first destroy the Horcruxes before facing off against him in person, but there's one further big problem standing in their way: they have no idea where they are located. As the trio alternately grow closer and tear apart, Harry, for better or worse, edges toward realizing his destiny as "the chosen one."
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" features some of the strongest, most beautifully realized moments in all of the series. In other respects, it is one of the most fundamentally problematic entries. The first film not set at Hogwarts, Harry, Ron and Hermione are now left to their own devices in the cold, cruel real world, struggling to put on brave faces while at the same time frightened beyond belief by what lies ahead for them. This lack of framework gives the picture a distinctly different feel from the previous six movies. The change isn't a bad one by itself, but returning director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves must now also contend with a narrative that fumbles and meanders for almost two-and-a-half hours while only reaching the halfway point of its story. Instead of having a beginning, middle and end, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" only progresses to somewhere in the second act. In the meantime, there is a slowness to the proceedings (particularly in the first hour) that would have been better off streamlined, including a dry, overlong segment set at the Ministry of Magic where Harry, Ron and Hermione confront pink lunatic Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), who has crafted a leaflet on the dangers of Mudbloods within a Pure-Blood society.
Once Harry and chums go it alone and find themselves trekking through an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland of desolate cityscapes and eerily barren forests in search of the Horcruxes, the film reclaims its footing in a big way. At its core, the series has always been about the young characters and their relationships as they grow older and come-of-age, and they have never come so deeply and achingly alive as they do here. As jealousy forms on Ron's part when he suspects Harry and Hermione have feelings for each other, director Yates does a sterling job of actualizing intimate conflicts against a monumental backdrop of immense danger and loneliness. In terms of its human tale, the picture reaches a crescendo of heartrending pathos in the scenes where Harry and Hermione are, for a time, left alone. They are never closer yet also never romantic—Hermione's heart will always belong to Ron, after all—and a poignant scene where the two of them temporarily put their troubles behind them and dance together to Nick Cave and the Bad Seed's sublime "O Children" is nothing short of wondrous, a two-minute slice of perfection. Soon after, a visit to Harry's birthplace on a snowy Christmas Eve is gentle, mournful and visually astounding in its painterly stillness. It is followed by a setpiece involving a shapeshifting snake and a walled-in baby's room macabre enough to make any well-known master of horror proud, and then consecutively segues into a sequence on a frozen pond that is just plain thrilling. There is also an unorthodox animated interlude explaining what the "Deathly Hallows" are bravura in its imagination and conception.
Reprising roles that fit them like gloves by now, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint are terrific as Harry and Ron, and then some. Radcliffe brings a shade of darkness never before seen to his title character, a flawed, intense vulnerability that renders him far more interesting than he once was when the series began. Grint, meanwhile, adds glimmers of the smiling, happy Ron of childhood's past in between his gloomier, more serious passages, giving a breadth to the part symbolic of where he's come from, what he's been through, and who he still is on the inside. If Radcliffe and Grint are better than fine, Emma Watson's turn is confident and powerful enough to be considered for end-of-the-year acting accolades. This is as much Hermione's film as it is Harry's, and Watson stands out time and again with a performance as natural and measured as it is profoundly touching. Supporting work is in every way possible supporting, the rest of the series regulars whittled down to cameos or, in a few cases, absent completely. Among the more prominent players, Ralph Fiennes (2008's "The Reader") is an effective, if underutilized, heavy as Lord Voldemort; Tom Felton gets some good moments as Draco Malfoy, forced into carrying out a nefarious plan while knowing in his heart how wrong it is, and Evanna Lynch is as dippy and sweet as always as the quirky yet sensible Luna Lovegood.
As "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" reaches its end (or its middle, depending on how you look at it), there is no concrete climax so much as there is a mild build in action followed by a weak cliffhanger. Nothing is solved, and few major events occur outside of two deaths that dramatically fall flat. The first longtime character to pass on perishes unceremoniously offscreen and is treated like an afterthought, while the final scenes involving a burial fall flat because the late character in question has been misused in the films up to this point and has never become anything more than a peripheral background figure. That director David Yates expects his or her death to emotionally tear the viewer up is a miscalculation; in fact, it leaves us decidedly indifferent, and was the wrong decision in hinging a movie ending upon. Suffice it to say, it doesn't come close to having the same impact of Albus Dumbledore's murder at the close of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."
What could have very well been the reigning filmic achievement in the "Harry Potter" canon now feels frustratingly incomplete. Time and again, unnecessary material calls attention to itself. Had key tweaks been made, pacing tightened, and a split down the middle not been opted for, who knows how high into the stratosphere it might have gone. As is, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" is solid but uneven, a motion picture of maturity (it's not for younger kids anymore), humanity (its top asset), and exquisite aesthetics (the cinematography by Eduardo Serra is magnifique, as are the visual effects and art direction) topped off by a misguided notion that more equals better. It doesn't, and its longwinded flourishes get the best of a sort-of finale that calls for greater momentum and focus and, well, the latter half of the book it's based upon. Harry Potter's bittersweet, much-deserved happily-ever-after is right around the corner. Getting to it sooner rather than later would have solved a whole lot of problems.