Review – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I

Originally Posted at Aint It Cool News 11/16/10

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I: Wherein Mr. Potter finally earns his comparisons to Tolkien and Lucas.

(Or, as the recently departed Dino DeLaurentiis might have said, “When the elf die, everybody cry.”)

I’ve grown to both love and loathe “The Empire Strikes Back.” It’s a beautiful movie, the film that, for many a fan of genre cinema, proved a combination of emotional honesty from the actors and deft enough touch from the director could transcend a genre’s percieved limitations and achieve legitimate greatness. For all the eye-candy on display, it’s the performances people remember; The tightening of tired eyes, the slight lift of a smirk, the way foam-rubber ears waggle in disappointment and the sound of black leather crinkling into a fist.

“Empire” is also the unattainable ideal for a lot of those same genre fans, a cruel measuring stick pulled down from a shelf, for decades worth of gangly, eager younger siblings in cinema to stand next to, critical greasepencils marking them all as many inches too short. Even more unfair, the stick itself keeps growing taller with time, and people keep learning the wrong lessons from the film, slouching against the wall in a poseur’s attempt to be grimdark and badass. Some, punched in the gut by “Empire’s” power dragged their toybox selfishly behind them into adulthood, not only denying further generations a chance to play with those figures, but hot-gluing clay to their feet and making them rape and murder each other for 3.99 a 22-page issue.

Young Mr. Potter has not only found himself on the short end of that stick for 5 straight films, he had to simultaneously deal with literary critics constantly bringing up one of Lucas’ biggest theft victims inspirations, “The Lord of the Rings.” And of course Potter is compared to Tolkien; it’s a fantasy, it’s printed on paper, bound, and sold in bookstores. It’s a hard comparison to duck when about 75% of the paperbacks on the shelves have his name printed somewhere in a blurb on the back.

But then, with Peter Jackson’s masterful adaptation of those books, Harry Potter found himself squinting into the sky at two cinematic giants. And even with help from filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell, it seemed Potter was doomed to finish his time at Hogwarts as yet another student of fantasy who couldn’t quite make it out from under that shadow, never earning those comparisons, in the same way many readers felt Harry never really earned the victories that Rowling wrote him.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” is the truth to that lie, and the first complete realization of the series’ potential. It synthesizes the best parts of “The Two Towers” and “Empire Strikes Back,” and while it can (and should) be argued that it doesn’t stand as tall (it just doesn’t have the same scale or weight) it has definitely earned a place in the discussion, by taking the first half of a book many of its defenders acknowledge can be rightfully titled “Harry Potter Goes Camping For A Couple Hundred Fucking Pages Ugh” and from that, crafting a deliberate, beautifully desolate journey of self-discovery.

The story continues from the last film with no reset, recap or hint of hand-holding. Harry, Ron and Hermione aren’t joyfully bumbling about their homes waiting to take the train to Hogwarts anymore. Voldemort has made his move, Dumbledore fell, the world has gone to shit, and large amounts of what’s left of that world is actively trying to murder Harry. With the help of his friends, he must find the remaining horcruxes Voldemort has hidden, and destroy them before finally facing the Dark Lord himself in a battle to the death. Unfortunately, Harry has not the first damn clue how to do any of this, and Dumbledore’s needlessly cryptic ass died before he could spell it out.

As an adaptation, the film is probably the best translation from book to screen. There’s a balance between Chris Columbus’ dry adherence to the text and Alfonso Cuaron’s faithfulness-be-damned success of tone. And, it cannot be undersold, that transformation of what felt like interminable years worth of feet-dragging prose, sludging through the woods, into something that attains legimately haunting – and yes, dark – beauty.

As a film, divorced from the source material, it plays a lot more like a penultimate episode of a long running TV series. That’s not to say it isn’t properly cinematic in scope – Eduardo Serra’s cinematography is striking. Nor do I think it is necessarily a negative; Consider the successes on television in the last decade, how thoroughly those successes have dwarfed the narrative ability of all but a handful of filmmakers working theatrically, and how viewers patience has been limbered up by weekends’ worth of powerloading series via downloads and DVD. The abrupt conclusion of Part 1 feels a lot like hitting a mid-season cliffhanger on disc 1, and finding out disc 2 hasn’t come in the mail yet.

And while the action is good (particularly Harry’s escape from his Uncle’s House, a quick shootout in a coffeeshop, and a mission to the Ministry of Magic that feels like Terry Gilliam took over David Yates’ chair,) and the atmosphere is great, it’s the acting that puts this film beyond the others. The supporting cast has always been reliable in these movies, and with a list that includes Brendan Gleeson, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Ralph Fiennes and Peter Mullan, the only real complaint is that I didn’t see enough of them. I saw just enough of Helena Bonham Carter’s brand of bug-eyed overacting, though, and I guess I’ll just have to wait until Part 2 to finally get a substantial piece of work from Alan Rickman as Severus Snape.

What used to heighten that annoyance were the kids. They always tried hard, but the earnestness of that attempt would often overwrite the emotions they were supposed to be conveying in the scene. They were not only growing up in front of hundreds of millions of people, burdened with the weight of essaying modern-day heroes, they were learning their craft, one blockbuster movie at a time, throughout their adolescence.

They pay off that effort in this film: Daniel Radcliffe, who figured this shit out before his co-stars, exudes a guarded confidence in his performance. Rupert Grint has toned down his alternating between broad mugging and dour pouting, giving his comedy a lighter touch and his serious moments some real anger. And Emma Watson, owner of the most self-conscious eyebrows on earth, has finally tamed those jumpy little fuckers. But, in what I’m sure is a bit of a “bite me” to the complainers, one of the better scenes in the film ends with an eyebrow lift so perfectly exaggerated even Spock would have to grin.

The performances lend this film the weight that made the imaginary quote I attributed to DeLaurentiis a reality for some. It’s hard to watch Chamber of Secrets now (I could probably end that sentence right there) and see Dobby as anything but an annoying exercise in R&D for ILM. Sure, having Toby Jones do the voice lends the little shit some pedigree, but there is no way, before walking into that theater, that I believed a performance evoking real emotion could have come out of that floppy eared sack of wrinkles.

But then again, I’m sure there were plenty in 1980 who said the same thing about Yoda before watching him. I’m sure they were happy to have been proven wrong as they left the theater. Just as I’m happy that I don’t have to reflexively roll my eyes at the next fan I hear calling the newest Harry Potter movie “The Empire Strikes Back” of the series, because this time they’re right: It may not be “Empire’s” equal, but this is definitely the Potter standing tallest against that measuring stick.

Published in: on 12/31/2010 at 1:37 am  Comments Off on Review – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I  
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