Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

This is a first impression review I wrote up a just the day after having watched the film in the theatre. Originally I published it as a note on Facebook, and since I made mostly minor changes to it, anybody having read the original can move on.

I have been to the cinema for another installment of the no longer so magical world of Harry Potter. It would be hyperbole to say David Yates and the marketing and financial departments of Warner Bros. did ruin the franchise. They did ruin their chances, though.

For those believing in the concept of spoilers: Here be spoilers.

What exactly went wrong with Deathly Hallows? Unfortunately a lot, luckily not everything. It all starts with J.K. Rowling’s book, which is the second in her series of Harry Potter novels desperately in need of an editor [the other being Order of the Phoenix]. Due to the many characters of the cycle and to all the hints she generously scattered through all the novels she had to go through a lot of character development and plot in her seventh brainchild. Obviously she also found out much too late that the Horcrux search was too longwinded, hence she supplanted them by the more pointed and interesting Deathly Hallows.

The script

For a script writer this offers some problems, would he have to jettison superfluous, repetitious, or downright boring bits to streamline everything into a filmable and viewable piece. Everything Steve Kloves is not known for. Like the more voracious fans of the books he seems to have trouble getting rid of anything Rowling has written. With the two best entries in the film canon – Azkaban and Goblet – his directors saved the day, coming up with, well, direction and wonderfully realised visual solutions. David Yates’ best Harry Potter, Order, exchanged Kloves for Michael Goldenberg, who did what neither Rowling nor her editors were capable of: give the whole thing an edge.

I would probably have been content with the almost encyclopaedic approach of Kloves if his dialogue wasn’t so bad. At best it is serviceable, pushing the story, most of the time it is hollow or annoying. Take the scene in which Ron joins Harry and Hermione again. Instead of letting ask Hermione all those stupid questions we know the answer to already, why not leave the scene to the actors, playing it out with their eyes, their bodies, non-verbal communication? It is even a filmic convention not to ask the obvious [to the viewer, mind].

The direction

It is not the script alone, this time David Yates seems to be content to be a mere illustrator of scenes. He doesn’t so much lead us through the film, he just puts one scene after another, often without any connection between them. It’s just drawing by numbers, ticking off the wish lists of the producing company and the fans: favourite characters – check, broomstick – check, quirky wand waving – check, well-known British thespian cameo – check. And so on. While many scenes are a tad [sometimes more than a tad] too long, this cramming of fan wishes into the film leads to loads of ‘blink or you miss it’ moments. Lucky Bill Nighy, whose first scene is right at the beginning and for once memorable. Almost all the others do not fare that well.

Editing and cinematography

I have no idea what happened here, apart from the fact that many scenes are simply too long, there’s no discernible rhythm to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. For reasons beyond me it had also been decided to employ the frantic action editing associated with Paul Greengrass and the Bourne series. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of this disorienting editing – if it fits. Harry Potter’s world is not the same as James Bond’s in Quantum of Solace. Worse, while Marc Forster used the action scenes to develop the character of Bond – starting out very frantic and disoriented, getting tamer and more conventional the further Bond comes to grips with himself – Yates just uses it because it is/was fashionable.

The camerawork and lighting fares better. It’s not impressive, the forests and even interiors look a bit boring, anything but magical, but the actors get decent lighting. I still don’t quite understand all the panning, I mean, come on, this was filmed with anamorphic lenses, wasn’t it? Why then does it pan and scan like a badly transferred cinemascope film on TV? I also don’t get why the grand vistas used several times didn’t inspire awe but merely a ‘Oh, Windows XP’ [yes, blue sky, green prairie]. Cuaron and Newell brilliantly grounded the magical word in realism, every location looked as if it really existed, had been lived and learned in, making the magic much more magical. Just think of the scene in which a deeply disturbed and sad Neville Longbottom stands at a stained glass window, which seems to cry! Nothing like that in Deathly Hallows.

The Marketing

It was already a bad idea to split the book into two films, leading to the next bad decision to cram everything from the book into the script. As far as I know, originally Part 1 was planned for a summer 2010 release, with Part 2 being a wonderful Christmas gift. After all, this is the kind of film expected for the holiday season. Now the second half of the Deathly Hallows will be just another runner-up in next year’s blockbuster season. The reasoning behind this shift has more to do with financial years than a sensible concept: Warner Bros. has one sure-fire box-office hit in 2010 and another in 2011 instead of two in one year.

The good points

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is still an entertaining if often irritating film, not least because Rowling’s creation is engaging. For one, David Yates renders the societal part of Voldemort’s reign as nothing short of the Third Reich – uniforms, official artwork, ideology, petty bourgeois becoming powerful minions. The sequence in the ministry shows us what the whole film could have been.

All of the actors are quite good to brilliant, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Rhys Ifans chew through their scenes, get everything out of them. Two of the actors, unfortunately, get bumped of off screen with hardly a mention [though I remember having seen Rhys Ifans been taken care of outside the house in the trailer]. This film resides even more on the shoulders of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson than any before. All three are very good though subtle difference shine through.

Curiously Rupert Grint has the most trouble of the three, which may be because the dialogue is so pedestrian. From the start of the series he showed the most talent, he was a brilliant comedian with impeccable timing. Since the film reviewed does not offer much comedy, he is a bit out of his depths but still does an admirable job – particularly considering the stupid dialogue he and the others are handed.

To me the greatest surprise is Emma Watson, whose mannerisms I couldn’t stand in the past. Mike Newell handed her some sublime scenes in Goblet, which hinted that she was capable of a lot more. In Deathly Hallows she delivers, no doubt her discipline pays off. It is mainly to her credit Hermione Granger becomes a real person, does not stay a mere pawn in an elaborate game of chess. Watson clearly leads the other young actors as the best film actress.

Daniel Radcliffe, still saddled with a rather thankless role – really, this Potter, does he not even listen? -, as a film actor comes third, he lacks the subtlety of Watson and the timing of Grint. He clearly is a stage actor, not a bad thing in a Fantasy film, just look at Alan Rickman and Ralph Fiennes, both bringing their grander, stagier, more eccentric sides to the series.

Redemption

Believe it or not – having read this far you might have trouble believing – I am not disappointed having spent € 7,50 for my ticket. There is one truly marvellous sequence in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1: the rendering of the Story of the Three Brothers.

Several times in the film Yates alludes to other movies, like Matrix Reloaded, and with the Three Brothers story he successfully creates something of his own by combining several reference points: there is a bit of early Disney [The Old Mill] and a lot of Karl Zeman [Krabat]. The few minutes of animated beauty are worth my admission money.

Notes:
1. Or he rips them off, if one is not so generous. The chase sequence looks a lot like the one from Matrix Reloaded but isn’t as successful. Which means something considering the chase in MR wasn’t very good either.
Or he rips them off, if one is not so generous. The chase sequence looks a lot like the one from Matrix Reloaded but isn’t as successful. Which means something considering the chase in MR wasn’t very good either.

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