2.5 Stars out of 4
Penultimate wizardly is among us. Ladies and gentlemen grab your wands, Hogwarts robes, and annular glasses because Harry Potter is here again. But Hogwarts, sadly, is not. Instead of being captivated by the labyrinthine terrain of the enchanting school, we move across vast landscapes, monumental plateaus, as we make our way to the prominent showdown to end all showdowns (I hope). How is the trip getting there, i.e. this movie? Well it lacks most of what I enjoyed in the previous Potters. But it spins off our expectations appropriately. This is not a silly Hogwarts fantasy anymore, this is becoming very real. And dangerous.
Lives are at stake. The whole ensemble of zany sorcerers assemble at The Burrow, the Weasley’s residence. They morph into Harry Potter replicas in attempt to elude the nefarious Death Eaters. This opening has the Potter package that works: terrific wit (curtesy of the Weasley twins in particular), whimsy, and intensity. The camera spirals around in a nifty tracking shot as the characters all turn into Potters – beware, the potion they take to do so tastes like “Goblin piss” warns Mad Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson). There’s a chuckle or two.
It’s, for a little, action scenes galore. A real treat. Characters die instantly and our sympathies become very vulnerable. But that tension loosens. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) are in grave danger have to flee from their alliances (and the fun). For a series that tended to act like a John Hughes melodrama fused with Tolkien fantastical innovation becomes more of a Michael Mann’s Public Enemy charade. Key difference: Potter is ‘Undesirable No. 1.’
The plight continues. The trio break into the Ministry, steal a locket (because lockets, keys, or gold always represent something important), and disapparate into the forest. They try to destroy the Horcrux, a device that, if destroyed, would eradicate Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) duress. But of course all fails. We need Part Two – it’s in our wallets to go!
Now, where does Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 deteriorate? The midpoint. Director David Yates, responsible for uncharted short films, never keeps up the chase. What I did appreciate was the effort. The script persists pitiably to keep our emotional interests. I feel though these Harry Potter characters have always been mechanisms of the plot, nothing more. Their chemistry is impeccable but they all represent identical emotions. The script is trying to convince us of what we already know. Let’s get to the fun of it all. This is 150 minutes. We all have spells to cast.
Two scenes that really worked in this irksome middle: there’s a nice scene with Harry grabbing Hermione’s hand and doing a friendly dance to reassure her. It’s a moment of peace, a break from the anguish these characters are going through. They are all caught in deep broods, which are almost coma-inducing for us. The dance was delightful, complex, and original. It reminded me of the scene in Peter Jackson’s remake of a remake King Kong when Naomi Watts randomly juggled to Kong. Critics scorned that scene for its puerile appeal, but it was fascinating: these are characters, in one way or another, confronting and dealing with their problems. Similar scenario here.
A second sequence that put the film in a greater thicket of originality was the story-within-a-story on the crux of the Deathly Hallows, in which the characters are represented as shadow puppets, giving the story an expressionistic style, like a children’s tale read with the lights turned off.
But what vexes me is Voldemort’s underuse. Now, underusing a villain can have a dramatic effect, as we are let to anticipate its presence throughout the film’s course. But Yates places Voldemort mainly at the beginning and the end. It disposes his menace because we never sense his presence throughout the chase, which is probably why a chunk of the film is sedated in emotional place-holder scenes.
Another realization: the wand has to be the greatest plot contrivance in all of cinema. I don’t criticize the film for that, but I’m fascinated by its glaring flaw. All characters need to do is swirl a wand that looks like a long cinnamon stick and whatever plot device they demand will surface right in front of them. But we accept the ludicrousness of it because Harry Potter is purely matter-of-fact with its fantasy – it is not necessarily credible as far as realism goes.
The film will be sweeping to most. Especially to those who have read the books. I’m not one to review the books – I have not read a single Harry Potter book and I do not plan to. But it is in my right to treat the film as a piece of cinema and declare it average inasmuch. It has trouble dealing with its characters outside of the narrative and this film is the best example of that.
Now, the ending is a good cliff hanger. Not a cheat, because the suspended conclusion is precisely the point. We are to await Part 2 (which releases this summer) and idle with wands in hand. I didn’t mind this Harry Potter but for sure the greatest of scenes will belong to its successor, as it is the final showdown. Part 2 should be great closure for everyone. Just don’t get me started on the 3D.