Friday, July 8, 2011

The Beginning of the End - "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I" Review

Here is what you've been waiting for, the beginning of the end, the first part of the final story in what is probably the most successful film saga in history.  We've come to expect quality from the Harry Potter film series, with last year's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince nearing perfection.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is a long film, and a long time coming, but is it as full of Potter-goodness as its mouthful-of-a-title might suggest?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 picks up right after the events of the last film, with Harry and his friends on a desperate quest to find and destroy the evil Lord Voldemort.  The battle of good and evil has erupted into all out war that envelops both the magical and non-magical worlds.  This is a movie purely for Potter book fans, as it does very little to bring you up to pace and includes a number of unexplained things never covered in previous films.

What sets this movie aside, like the book, from the rest of the series is that it doesn't take place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for one second.  Instead Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson,) have dropped out of school in the pursuit of destroying the remaining horcruxes.

Gone is the magical wonder that filled the halls of their wizarding school and instead we get spanning vistas of forlorn countryside, meant to echo the emotions of our struggling protagonists.  The juxtaposition of magic and the British cities and countryside provides a refreshingly fresh look at the Harry Potter universe.

However, with all these barren vistas and frozen forests it is hard to feel like there is a war going on.  The characters often feel detached from their quest, as the war is only really hinted at in radio broadcasts they tune in on.  With the enormous budget and resources this film had going for it, it is a bit disappointing that we never get to see the full extent of the madness that is overtaking the world.

That's not to say that there aren't some incredible scenes of action and tension.  The film rockets to a start with an incredible midair chase sequence that completely delivers on the hopes of every Potter aficionado.   Following it up is a completely unforgettable heist at the Ministry of Magic that wouldn't feel out of place in Terry Gilliam's comedy masterpiece, Brazil.

The tone of the film is dark, missing the series' incredible sense of humor.  There is levity at moments, particularly a delightful scene between eight Potter look-alikes, but don't expect to find yourself smiling like you have during the past films.

This can be seen the most on the faces of the wonderful cast.  If there is one crowning achievement of the Harry Potter movies, it is that as they've  continued each film, another stunning British performer has been added to the already amazing cast.  They all come back here and what a tour de force they are under the diligent and inspired direction of David Yates, returning for his third Potter film.

Notable to this film is the introduction of Bill Nighy (Shaun of the Dead, Love Actually) as Rufus Scrimgeour, the new Minister of Magic.  While he may have only two scenes in the film, he does more with the character than some actors do in an entire film.

Daniel Radcliffe,  Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have come a long way since the beginning of the series.  We've watched them grow from bright-eyed children to the stunning young-adults they are now.  They more than carry the film; they are the absolute life-blood of the series.  Whether luck or skill, the three have become fine actors and are given some of their best material in this film.

Potter fans will debate the notable additions and subtractions from J.K. Rowling's massive 759-page finale.  Even with its contents spread out over two films, there was no way to fit it all in but boy do they try.  The additions are all welcomed and actually elevate some of the worst parts of the book to the best of the movie.

A particular scene, which will undoubtedly become controversial, features Harry and Hermione quietly dancing in their tent.  This scene stands as the strongest thing the film has to offer as the two struggle with defining their roles in each other's lives before beautifully making a non-verbal decision.  The moment is touching and wonderfully performed.  David Yates took a great risk in attempting and then including this scene much to the film's benefit.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 may not be the most exciting chapter in the ongoing Potter saga, but it certainly understands its characters the best.  The film is a ton of fun and full of dark scares that only begins to prepare you for the conclusion next year.  Some of the magic seems to be missing, especially when spell casting is relegated to "bullet shoot-outs" instead of wondrous magical concoctions.  However, in the end its actors, story, and impressive visuals make it a film you cannot miss.

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