Monday, November 22, 2010

Deathy Hallows Pt. 1 (Review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

As we all know by now, the next-to-last installment of the first motion picture adaptations of the Harry Potter series opened last weekend to spectacular box office.  Millions attended midnight shows.  One of the local cinemas here in Los Angeles began regular showings at 9 a.m. instead of their more usual 11:30.  Headlines heralding "the end of an era" as well as stories about the kiss that seems to startle people (hadn't they read the book?).  I saw it yesterday.  For entirely personal reasons, I will enjoy it more the next time.  Not that I didn't enjoy it the first time!  Quite the opposite.  Rather, I fell into a classic dilemna for book fans seeing them transformed into a new medium--not a rejection but something of a disconnect.  Certain bits I loved were cut, and honestly I cannot really disagree with any of those cuts.  Turning seven-hundred-plus pages into two and half hours isn't easy.  Deathly Hallows Part One manages this with great skill.  For example, the somewhat clumsy explanation of how Voldemort recognized the "right" Harry was changed into something a little more visceral, more visual, and tied up to the first of many deaths in this story.  Meanwhile the Horcrux Ron destroys comes across as a lot more powerful and frightening than an eye inside a locket!  Kudos!  Another neat little change--making Pius an actual Death Eater rather than imperioused was such a neat piece of streamlining.

Let me also mention that many lovely bits made it into the flick.  When Harry wakes up at Grimmauld Place, he sees that Ron and Hermione evidently fell asleep holding hands.  Adored that!  When Harry (really Fleur) gets on a thestral at the beginning and hugs "her" fiancee from behind, it took less than a second but was just lovely.  And hilarious.  Luna and her Dad were everything I could have hoped for (not a strong man, Mr. Lovegood, but hardly an evil one--he has a breaking point and I cannot blame him too much).  The Malfoy household looked great, with lots of subtle tensions and dynamics at play.  Must say the casting of Jaime Campbell Brower as Grindelwald in the flashbacks and old photos was inspired (and a little gossipy shout out--congrats to him and Bonnie Wright who plays Ginny upon their recent engagement!).

Part of my discordant reaction to the film lies in its tone.  My favorite Harry Potter film remains Prisoner of Azkaban if for no other reason than that one felt just right.  It blended the naturalistic and fantastical to a degree that felt perfect, and none of the others in series came very close (with the possible exception of Order of the Phoenix).  Lest anyone think I'm trashing this one, allow me to publicly proclaim Deathly Hallows Part One my second favorite--it really is that good!  My complaint is quite subtle, worthy of notice and even discussion.  But is also a matter of taste in many ways--taste about degree and nuance rather than anything fundamental.  In Azkaban the magic of the wizarding world echoed in all kinds of details, from the lighting to the camera angles to the way things totally un-real just kept happening in the background.

This movie, understandably, shapes itself as a heart-wrenching thriller wherein our heroes--Harry, Ron and Hermion--find themselves on the run as Voldemort and his Death Eaters successfully take over the Wizarding World (at least in the British Isles).  A Nazi-like regime is soon promoting blood purity, hounding those of Muggle ancestry.  The new Minister of Magic (in a nicely evil touch) proudly proclaims he will protect this bastion of equality while standing before a statue that shows Muggles in their natural place--struggling to hold up a vast statue of an enthroned wizard.  For the first time in a Harry Potter film, we do not see Hogwarts.  Nor most of the staff.  Hagrid and Snape make appearances but no others.  Part of the story is about maturity, about how each of these three need to become a lot older and do it fast.  They don't always make it.  Making everything much worse is when they actually find and acquire one of Voldemort's remaining Horcruxes--a locket.  Destroying it is another thing.  Dealing with having a tiny piece of Voldemort's soul near them is another.  A subtle touch is that while the Horcrux tends to make Harry ill-tempered and Ron selfish, it seems to make Hermione depressed.

As months go by, they all feel increasingly daunted by what faces them.  Only a combination of luck, courage and Hermione's brilliance saves them.  Here is something of a clue, incidentally, about the next film, at least in my eyes.  Central to the book are three mysteries that confront them while they're on the run--Dumbledore's past and motivations, the Horcruxes themselves, and the mysterious Deathly Hallows of the title (the telling of this tale is handled very well indeed--a kind of shadow puppet show showing what became of the three brothers).  But these are kept to a bare minimum here.  Why?  This is totally central to the story, and without these the climax of the seven-volume epic makes precious little sense.  Methinks it likely that the "cutoff," namely where the filmmakers decided to divide the book into two, offers a clue.  This film ends as Harry and his friends escape Malfoy Manor while Voldemort acquires the Elder Wand from Dumbledore's tomb.  Now, this takes place rather late in the book.  I would posit that the bulk of solving the mysteries takes place amid the incredibly elaborate "action sequences" to come in the next film (previews show Hogwarts itself in ruins).  We'll find out next summer!

A minor point to make about the difference between all the books and all the movies, which now results in a little bit of imbalance.  In the books, while Hermione is utterly brilliant at least at first she isn't that good at action.  Not at first.  She keeps getting better and better, so that by the end she's the equal of the boys--who likewise become increasingly more attentive to details and more intellectual stuff.  The films show Hermione excellent at this from the beginning, which makes Ron in particular seem like a third wheel.  Perhaps this also helps set up the scene when he destroys the Horcrux, though.

On that subject--The Kiss.  Nowhere near as "fierce" as reports would lead you to think.  Very effective in its own right, though.

Soon after seeing the film I overheard two nice young women discussing the flick, and they repeated what I'd heard from others--that this film was intense of a "children's story."  Kinda misses the point, at least in my humble view.  Harry, Ron and Hermione aren't children any more.  The story has gotten increasingly adult.  And honestly, what did you think the PG13 rating was all about?

This summer, the story comes to its spectacular conclusion.  At least for this, first re-telling.  No way it is the only one, not so long as our civilization continues.  Narnia has had multiple versions.  So has Lord of the Rings.  Methinks it only a matter of time until Harry Potter returns with a different cast and tells the whole epic one more time through a different lens.  I hope it proves at least as good as this one.

1 comment:

Nicole Hadaway said...

I'll be back to read this review after I've seen the movie -- I don't want to go into it with too many pre-conceived notions!