Have you ever had to perform a long and seemingly pointless task and realized there is still more to do after the job is done? Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, the penultimate installment in the fantasy movie franchise, is slightly similar to that. There is nothing in this movie that will compel audiences to skip the final film next July. Still, it tends to feel sluggish thanks to the meandering plot and interrupted tone.

Before anybody begins to pound me for misunderstanding J.K. Rowling’s story, I know perfectly well that this aimlessness is replicated from the seventh book. Deathly Hallows continues where the last story, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, ended. Harry, Ron and Hermione (played by the continually excellent Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) know that Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) can be defeated after destroying the Horcruxes, the six magical items that contain pieces of his soul. They locate the next Horcrux an hour or so into this movie, and then spend much of the remainder trying to destroy it while evading Voldemort’s spies.

Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves decided to split the 759-page novel into two movies to give the finale the epic length and scope it deserves. That’s an admirable objective, but the initial result is exactly what it sounds like: one piece of a whole. The overall film could have taken one facet of the novel’s first half and developed it as the basis for a complete, separate movie (think of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies as an example). Instead, it takes the high points from the designated chapters and stops at a dramatically convenient place. These compiled portions are an important piece of the complete, eight-chapter movie saga, but the movie is not a fully realized and satisfying story by itself.

Perhaps the best way to approach Deathly Hallows is as a hunting story. On one hand, it is about the evildoers’ search for our three heroes. On another hand, it is about the heroes’ search for Voldemort’s weakness and for a chance of restoring peace. It offers a few parallels to The Empire Strikes Back, which centered on Darth Vader’s pursuit of Luke and his friends. Both movies are a succession of close shaves that incur heavy, if not fatal, losses. The primary difference between these movies is that Deathly Hallows ends on a less hopeful note (one enthralling enough to get the audience excited for the final movie). If you consider Deathly Hallows a fun excursion instead of a conventional, three-act story, you will surely find it more enjoyable.

The movie swiftly establishes its dark tone as soon as the Warner Bros. logo appears onscreen. “Hedwig’s Theme,” the John Williams musical piece that has played over the beginning of each Potter movie, cannot finish even one phrase before it is drowned out by the creepy sounds of a writhing snake. The oppressive atmosphere continues through the beautiful cinematography by Eduardo Serra (Unbreakable), the understated yet threatening music by Alexandre Desplat (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and the production design of series regular Stuart Craig. His set for the Ministry of Magic has always looked cold, but with these artists’ combined input (and a few directorial touches that recall Terry Gilliam’s Brazil), it now looks positively abhorrent. When all eight Potter films are looked upon in retrospect, I guarantee this one will be remembered for its grim yet handsome production values.

The detraction for this dark undertaking is that the lighter and humorous spots now feel out of place. The jokes carried over from Rowling’s book that relate directly to conflict still have some worth, but the bits that Yates and Kloves added are of little consequence. They try to make a love triangle out of what was just one-sided suspicion in Rowling’s text, which leads to an awkward and silly dance scene between Harry and Hermione. Cutting that scene would not have lost a single thing except a couple of minutes, which would have been to this overlong movie’s benefit. I suppose one can appreciate the attempt to lighten the film’s actively harsh mood, but the execution of such endeavors is ultimately unnecessary and disrupts the movie’s entrancing darkness.

Some people may feel cheated that Deathly Hallows seems to be a lot of hassle over nothing, but I think it has enough good scenes that viewers will not be sorry they saw it. In many ways, it lays the groundwork for how the second half should look and feel. If Part Two combines the tone and atmosphere of Part 1 with the huge action showpieces from the novel, the complete Deathly Hallows will surely be an absorbing and rewarding conclusion to this very enjoyable series.


nansemond said...

I have not seen this film yet, but I find it interesting that you compare it to Empire Strikes Back. I remember leaving that film feeling cheated, with most of the major plot threads left dangling. In the years since, I have come to view Empire as the best of the series, and the ending as a clever cliffhanger. While I doubt that Deathly Hallows has scenes to rival "I'm your father" or "I know," I wonder how the division will hold up over time, and how the film will eventually come to be rated in terms of the series.

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