Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
By Andrew Welch
November 19, 2010
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, J.K. Rowling’s popular heroes—Harry, Ron and Hermione—forsake their beloved Hogwarts for an adventure that takes them out into the wider world, and should they be defeated, the consequences will be far-reaching for both wizard and muggle alike. If you’re a Potter fan who already knows how the story ends, whether or not they succeed will be the last question on your mind. What you’ll really want to know is how it compares to the other movies. But because of how different Deathly Hallows is from the rest of the series, that isn’t easy to say. Nevertheless, this latest film, the third helmed by director David Yates, is more intimate and weighty than everything that’s come before. It’s a mature, action-packed adventure film that may even leave some viewers stunned by its audacity, both in terms of its content and themes, and it’s all the better for that.
The story’s bleak tone is established right upfront in a tense, darkly lit scene set at a gloomy mansion. The villainous Lord Voldemort and his followers are plotting an attack against Harry Potter, the powerful young wizard who stands in the way of the dark side’s ultimate victory over the world. Ralph Fiennes has been playing Rowling’s villain ever since the fourth film, The Goblet of Fire, and his performance here is as forceful as ever. He sneers, he rasps, he sends shivers down your spine and leaves you wanting more. Is his character over the top? I think so, but when a bad guy is played with as much relish as Fiennes puts into the role, it’s hard not to forgive any excesses.
After this terrific opening, the rest of the movie is devoted solely to Harry and his mission to destroy a series of talismans known as horcruxes. As revealed in the previous film, The Half-Blood Prince, each horcrux contains a piece of Voldemort’s soul. If you can destroy them, you can destroy him. The problem is that the locations of the horcruxes and the means by which they can be destroyed are an utter mystery. This leads Harry, Ron and Hermione on a search that takes them all across England. Serving as a backdrop as they travel is a perpetually cloudy sky that reflects the uncertainty of the times as well the inner turmoil each character feels. What’s more, Yates and cinematographer Eduardo Serra imbue the story with a sense of scope that brings to mind Peter Jackson’s sweeping photography of New Zealand in Lord of the Rings.
But there’s more to their journey than large vistas. The only known horcrux in the trio’s possession is a small but powerful locket that begins to work its dark magic on Ron. In what feels like yet another allusion to Jackson’s epic trilogy, the locket begins to influence Harry’s friend. He grows more and more sullen, and more and more frustrated with their journey, until at last, convinced that Harry and Hermione have developed romantic feelings for one another, he leaves. With Ron out of the picture, the film takes on an even more intimate tone as the tender beauty of Harry and Hermione’s friendship is brought to the fore. In one scene, Harry tries to cheer up a glum Hermione by dancing with her to a song on the radio. It’s a moment that could have easily been cheesy, but is redeemed by the genuine (though purely platonic) affection the two characters feel for each other. Likewise, in a scene where Hermione, feeling more distraught than ever, suggests they give up their search and live out the rest of their lives together in hiding, you feel that these two friends love each other enough to do just that. If only they weren’t both in love with someone else.
It’s tempting to say more about the plot, but I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t read the books. Suffice it to say that the movie is about more than three characters traveling across a barren landscape searching for hidden trinkets. Deathly Hallows Part 1 features some of the more intense moments of the series, including a creepy encounter with an old woman who’s not what she seems and a run-in with Voldemort’s followers that borders on disturbing. Yates, who holds the distinction of directing more Potter films than any other director who’s worked on the series, has always seemed to be channeling Alfonso Cuarón, the director of The Prisoner of Azkaban, and this movie is no different. He may not be as subtle with the camera as Cuarón is, but he excels at creating a magical world that feels realistic and lived in.
Standing out even more than the film's visuals, though, are the performances. Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson shine as the movie’s central compatriots and sojourners. Their chemistry is spot-on, thanks in large part to the years they’ve spent working together. Likewise, Rupert Grint excels as Ron. His character’s goofball nature is downplayed, allowing Grint the chance to develop him as a distinct personality with his own flaws and insecurities. And there are plenty of other great performances to enjoy as well. Imelda Staunton returns as the despicable Dolores Umbridge, and Bill Nighy skillfully handles a minor role as the newest Minister of Magic. If there’s a complaint to be made, though, it’s that we just don’t get enough of these actors. Many of them appear in only one scene and then are gone. In the case of Alan Rickman’s Snape, this would only be a problem if we weren’t going to be getting a lot more of him in July when The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is released.
In light of how exciting and dramatic this latest Potter movie is, it’s a shame that some still feel justified in condemning J.K. Rowling and her work. Both the books and the films are less about magic and more about exploring life’s impenetrable mysteries, such as suffering and death. Coming to terms with these is one of the hardest things we can do as humans, and that Rowling’s characters are primarily children proves that you can never be too young to wonder about life’s most troubling aspects. That adults are just as fascinated with the series as their kids also proves that questions about these things never go away. If anything, they only become more pressing.
Andrew Welch is a freelance writer in Roanoke, Texas.