Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Beginning of the End: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1

The filmmakers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have been telling us that the decision to split the film into two parts was made with purely creative reasons, the better to faithfully reproduce J.K. Rowling’s text, but having seen Part 1 I can only think that the reason had to have been Warner Brothers’ desire to double their profits. This is a decision that has only hobbled the creativity. Sure, Stuart Craig’s production design is outstanding. The cast is excellent. But director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves don’t quite know what to do with all this extra screen time on their hands. They create some really wonderful moments but separate them with meandering and wheel spinning that distracts and, ultimately, makes the experience feel like a let down. Alexandre Desplat’s score can barely even manage a few bars of John William’s great original themes. It’s like someone promised fireworks only to set off a couple of firecrackers and call it good enough.

Oh, the fun one swift three-and-a-half-hour finale could have been. Instead, we have been served up a two-and-a-half hour prelude to next summer’s main attraction. There’s a lot of monotonous exposition to be found here. The film begins by picking up where last year’s wonderful Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince left off. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are facing a posthumous task from Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to destroy the devices that allow the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) to remain immortal. Meanwhile, evil forces are gathering, taking over the Ministry of Magic, installing the snaky Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) to the position of Headmaster of Hogwarts, striking fear in the hearts of all good wizards and witches, and spilling menace into the Muggle world.

Our three heroes are unsure how to proceed. A host of British character actors are there to help them, at first. Returning once again are, among others, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, John Hurt, and Toby Jones. New to the cast are Rhys Ifans as a threatened publisher and Bill Nighy as the new Minister of Magic. The adults are used most sparingly in the film. Even the villains, including Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Isaacs, Helen McCrory and Timothy Spall, are rarely glimpsed. The film features our three heroes alone for much of the run time, saddled with a somewhat repetitive, often perfunctory, script. Luckily, by this point they’re wonderful actors. I suppose growing up around all these supremely talented thespians will do wonders from a young actor.

But the rich ensemble is greatly missed, as are the magical riches of Craig’s sets for Hogwarts. I know they’ll be utilized to a far greater extent in the next installment, but that knowledge did little to ease the empty feeling where Hogwarts belongs. There’s a sense that the filmmakers, taking their cues from Rowling, are deliberately thwarting series-finale nostalgia by shaking up the form of the series, sending our characters adrift into the Muggle wilderness, hunted and stalked. Indeed, there are many affecting and effective moments to be found here. A memory-changing spell opens the film on a sad note, a daring infiltration into the Ministry of Magic is thrilling, a coffee shop shootout is tense, a small dance as a respite amidst danger is tender and touching, and a deadly dark cloud of fear that bursts forth from an evil enchantment sets the stage for a harrowing emotional high point for the film.

I’m sure that the film sets up the narrative and emotional points needed to launch into the conclusion proper. Having read the books, I can see that the filmmakers haven’t lost the thread of the plot. Having loved the movies, I can tell that the technical qualities of this entry are as good as any. What’s missing is a sense of shape, of drive, of a journey. So many of the books’ subplots have been stripped away from the previous adaptations that it’s hard to have a film that tries to make some of them matter without prior introduction. (Have we even seen the character Mundungus before?) The details don’t always feel properly relevant. We begin the film knowing that Harry and his friends are in danger from an increasingly powerful source of evil and end the film with little gained or lost. There are some nice moments, sure, but the film, as a whole, should feel a whole lot livelier. It leaves much to be desired. I don’t know what I was expecting, heading into the film knowing full well that this was only half a Harry Potter movie and fully aware that it would likely be a faithful adaptation of the dullest patch of plotting in the book series. As should have been expected, the film is the first of the series to not feel densely packed with characters, plot points, and magic.

Like the first several hundred pages of the book, Deathly Hallows Part 1 begins to set up a finale. Just as those pages alone would not make a satisfying book, this is not a satisfying film. After the full story is complete, the film could look retroactively rosier, but as of right now the experience of seeing the film is more than a little tedious. This film can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, stand alone, but I wish it did a little more to stand out as something better than a mere mechanical set-up for the forthcoming resolution. Sure, it’s nice to see these characters and this world once again, but I’m looking ahead. I’m looking forward to (hopefully) having more time to luxuriate in the world’s imaginative details, enjoy the deeply talented ensemble, and to experience the magic once again.

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