It’s finally here: the first part of the official end of the Harry Potter series. The books have long since passed, but fans that need their Harry Potter fix still have two movies left with which to indulge themselves. And the fans seem to know it if box office numbers have anything to say on the matter. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part one) pulled in $125 million in the U.S. on its first weekend alone, and over $200 million extra internationally, smashing the franchise record of $102 million domestically for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That number is nothing to scoff at either, especially considering the controversy over the splitting of the final book into two films. Fans of the books often wondered how they were going to pull off The Deathly Hallows back when we all thought there was only going to be one movie; the book, after all, is 784 pages long, and as much as the filmmakers have cut from previous books, doing so for The Deathly Hallows is incredibly tricky considering the number of plotlines needed to fulfill the agenda set up in The Half-blood Prince.
For that reason alone, The Deathly Hallows (part one) is perhaps the closest an HP film has come to the original source material since the original two films (directed by Chris Columbus). Coupled with the two movie split, this is a huge gamble. If you’re going to split a movie in half, you have to justify that by creating a complete narrative that avoids leaving the audience with a cliffhanger, but is also open enough to warrant seeing the final installment. The Deathly Hallows (part one) comes close to meeting this task, though knowing whether the film is truly effective depends on what happens in the final half of the sequence. Still, what The Deathly Hallows (part one) offers
fans is an action-packed fantasy film that doesn’t forget its core audience and sets the stage for the true climax of the series in part two.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part one) drops the audience right where The Half-Blood Prince left them: in darkness. Voldemort has risen to power, influencing and threatening the safety of the wizarding world. The Ministry of Magic is rapidly trying to control public hysteria, mudbloods (wizards born of muggle parents) are being targeted and killed by Voldemort’s army, and Harry Potter is in greater danger than he ever was before. But Harry Potter and his friends have a job to do: they have to find the last few horcruxes—the pieces of Voldemort’s soul that prevent the Dark Lord from completely dying—and destroy them so as to end Voldemort’s reign and bring things back to the way they were. And in their journey they’ll discover more about themselves, the world around them, and what they must do and sacrifice to protect everything they hold dear.
The Deathly Hallows is perhaps one of the darkest of the Harry Potter films, even when compared to The Order of the Phoenix. Unlike previous films, the government-level adjustments to wizarding society in The Deathly Hallows are manipulated directly by Voldemort, instead of by the fear of what people are often unwilling to acknowledge (in the case of the wizards in The Order of the Phoenix, it is the fear of Voldemort’s return, which, of course, proves to be a somewhat ironic fear, since it more or less plays into Voldemort’s hands). The result is a more personal kind of darkness: characters betray one another—even people you’d never expect—proving that it has become increasingly more difficult in this world to know who to trust; likewise, people quickly begin to sacrifice their freedoms in the fear of something they feel helpless to resolve. Astute viewers will immediately begin to draw parallels between The Deathly Hallows and our own world, particularly given the changes in the last few months in the U.S. and elsewhere. Unlike our world, however, the one presented in The Deathly Hallows is reasonably projected from Voldemort’s rapid removal of wizarding society’s security blankets. Hogwarts is no longer the safe haven it had always been, even given the handful of dangerous incidences that have occurred there over the franchise. For Harry and his companions, this is doubly problematic, because what The Half-blood Prince showed them is that Voldemort can get to them no matter where they go. The Deathly Hallows continues this trend to even greater effect—without security blankets, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are both on the run and more desperate than ever to find the horcruxes they need to destroy Voldemort for good, because sooner or later, Voldemort and his men will find them and kill them.
The shift in tone, beginning most clearly with The Order of the Phoenix and culminating in The Deathly Hallows, coupled with the radical change of scenery, also make possible the ramping up of the action that has been teasing us for six movies. There are fewer restrictions on the characters, good and evil–both because of the conditions of the emerging world and the original source material–and this freedom is reflected clearly in the action. Duels are rugged and uncontrolled—an obvious contrast to the previous six films, all of which take place in the confines of school and the educational structure. Likewise, The Deathly Hallows is unfettered by a narrative dominated by children, not simply because the main characters are now practically adults; if anyone remembers the enormous duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort—and loved it as much as I did—then they’ll be equally pleased with The Deathly Hallows, where advanced levels of magic are in higher frequency and presented in situations entirely external from the school, thus adding a certain degree of realism to the story. That is to say that magic in The Deathly Hallows is not centered on training in a school, but on using it to achieve one’s personal goals, whether that be murder, manipulation, or pleasure. For example, we see the polyjuice potion used both as a deception for protection against certain death and as a spy device under much more serious circumstances than spying on one’s fellow classmates—specifically, to kill. I’ve always been pleased with how the filmmakers have attempted to render the magic from the books, and there are certainly no complaints here.
What The Deathly Hallows seems apt to do is open the floodgates that were gently cracked in The Order of the Phoenix (in the Dumbledore/Voldemort duel), but pushed closed again by The Half-blood Prince (arguably one of the worst films of the series). Harry, Hermione, and Ron are all obviously coming into their own, more secure in their abilities and unafraid to show it. Likewise, the loosening of Voldemort’s leash—the danger posed to him by the Ministry of Magic and its allies–makes the first major sequence a thousand times more threatening than anything we’ve seen before precisely because of where it is placed: the muggle world, with a handful of overlapping spaces. The Deathly Hallows is far more action-oriented than previous franchise films, which makes for a far more rushed plot than HP fans might be used to. While this might seem like a criticism of the film, the quick pace actually enhances the desperation exhibited by the characters. Harry, Hermione, and Ron all ride on the same sheer dumb luck (as McGonagall would say) that got them through every major film plot in the series, not because they have a choice—which one might argue they had when they were younger—but because there are no other options.
That doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t have its problems. For viewers of the films who are unfamiliar with the books, much of what happens in The Deathly Hallows will feel incomplete. This is because the first half is intimately tied with the second. There are a number of elements that ring suspiciously of deus ex machina, for example, but which will—we can hope—be resolved nicely in the second part. Whether this is a problem of advertising or simply a mistake on the part of the filmmakers is difficult to say. The one crucial failing of the producers for The Deathly Hallows is that they have decided to wait until next summer to release the final installment while also doing very little to help viewers understand why both pieces have to be seen to get the full picture—I would argue that non-readers of the series are not particularly interested in issues of adaptation, which is fair.
One of the other flaws with the film is the visuals. While most of the CG renderings are beautifully done—such as the first major fight sequence and the various uses of magic throughout the film—the one weakness involves much more complicated CG elements: characters. One of my biggest pet peeves is in how filmmakers use CG. While the Harry Potter films have never been at the highest end of the visual scale, the rendering of several familiar characters in The Deathly Hallows could have been done more efficiently, particularly since I know what will happen in the second installment. Dobby, for example, looks less detailed than he did when he first appeared in The Chamber of Secrets; the same can be said for Nagini—Voldemort’s snake companion, who has a fairly prominent role in this particular film. Maybe this has more to do with my familiarity with the graphics quality of the last few years than with any degradation of the visuals in Harry Potter, but as much as I enjoyed the film, I couldn’t help taking notice of how certain visuals didn’t seem up to par. The good thing to take away from this criticism, however, is that the film is not as poorly rendered as The Expendables (2010), which did such a piss-poor job of rendering CG blood that I literally laughed out loud the first time the dark substance appeared on screen. To put it another way: the worst of the graphics in The Deathly Hallows are simply average, rather than exceptional (which I think the final installment of the film deserves).
But the shimmering star of the film has nothing to do with good graphics, high-flying action, or an appropriately rushed plot. Perhaps the greatest part of The Deathly Hallows is the chemistry between the main actors–Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint–and the supporting cast–who are only briefly on screen. Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint work superbly together. Their comedic and emotional timing is arguably the strongest it has ever been, demonstrating that we are dealing with a group of actors who have not only grown into themselves, but into the characters as well. In a way, they have grown with their characters and seem remarkably at ease fulfilling their roles. Humor is particularly well played throughout the film, both for the main actors and the supporting cast members. Ron, as always, acts as comic relief, but his jokes are no longer placed in moments of childish fancy, since doing so would cheapen the moment. Instead, Ron’s humor always acts as tension relief either during less-stressful sequences or at the ends of particularly dark ones. The supporting cast members are equally as funny. Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps), for example, share a particularly touching moment early in the film in which humor is used as a kind of comforting device—and it works, giving the impression that these characters and the people surrounding them are all part of a real family unit. As much as the story focuses on Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the secondary cast members are equally as important, representing the solid ground on which the main characters rest their hopes and dreams. The fact that the secondary characters—with the exception of one or two new faces—move as smoothly on screen as our heroes—both in how they display the kaleidoscope of emotions that the opening thirty minutes of The Deathly Hallows offers and in how they relay humor to themselves and to us—makes losing oneself in the film remarkably easy. That’s what we go to the movies for, isn’t it? To lose ourselves. To become part of the world being presented before us.
In the case of Harry Potter, we’re losing ourselves in a kind of dream, one that is full of adventure and wonder in a way that our own mundane world seems to be incapable of providing (it isn’t actually incapable, but so many people assume it is). That’s what we’ve been riding on since 2001: the awe-inspiring beauty of a world whose magic changes the very nature of how people interact with their surroundings. The Deathly Hallows is a continuation, but also a culmination and expansion on those moments of immersion. Now all we have to do is wait until July to lose ourselves one last time.