Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

I’m going to have to preface this piece with the disclaimer that I adore the Harry Potter books. I have read all seven of them several times each, and I find myself drawn back to the best of them - the fourth through the seventh - at least once or twice a year, when I will read three or four of them back to back in quick succession. If I were better at this whole movie review thing - or perhaps just more frequent and consistent with respect to actually doing it - I might be able to better evaluate the films as entities separate from the novels that spawned them.

Alas, that is not the case. I just can’t do it. J.K. Rowling has created a world so rich in characters and settings and imagery that watching the films would be enormously satisfying if the only thing to be said about them is that they are quite well-executed visual interpretations of seven of the greatest novels ever written. They are not going to satisfy every lover of the novels, because there is simply too much in the books - especially those last four, which are quite long - to cram into one movie. (There’s even too much in the thicker books to cram into two movies, though fitting more into the film was not the reason for splitting the seventh book into two films - that decision was all about the Benjamins).

This one begins with the evacuation of Number Four, Privet Drive, as the Dursleys flee because they will no longer be safe once Harry’s whereabouts are known. (I don’t recall if the reason for this was explained in the last film or not, but it is not rehashed her for those who are not well-versed in the story. Dumbledore placed special magic on the home of Harry’s aunt and uncle and cousin, so that he would be protected there from Voldemort. However, when Harry comes of age, at seventeen, which is set to occur early in the film, the magic ceases to operate. This places both Harry and his relatives in danger.) In the novel, there is a nice moment when Dudley, Harry’s cousin, cottons to the fact that Harry is not going with the Dursleys. In his awkward way, he asks if Harry is going to be all right, acknowledging that he cares about Harry because Harry once saved his life. The two, who have never been especially friendly, make peace, and it’s a nice scene - but is omitted here, one of the few quibbles I had with the movie.

There’s probably not much point in hashing over the plot points of the story, except to note that what’s really going on here is that Harry and his friends are being pursued by a malevolent force while they try to figure out how to vanquish that force, using incomplete information passed on by someone who is no longer with them. Though overloaded with special effects (which can’t really be avoided in a story steeped in magical lore), the elements of a classic horror movie are pretty much in place here. Most of this film is concerned with the increasing power of Voldemort and his singleminded desire to destroy Harry. For his part, Harry does his best to work out what Dumbledore told him about horcruxes, so that he and Ron and Hermione can find the ones that are left, destroy them, and then destroy Voldemort.

The element of horror is best captured in a scene in which Harry and Hermione visit Godric’s Hollow, the place where Harry was born, where his parents were murdered (and are presumably buried), and where - Harry just now discovers - Dumbledore grew up. They arrive in Godric’s Hollow on what appears to be the night of Christmas Eve, with snow on the ground and few people out and about. They come to the house where Voldemort murdered Harry’s parents, and then to a cemetery, where they find the headstone belonging to James and Lily Potter. Presently, they encounter a silent old woman, whom they believe to be a noted magical historian with information about Dumbledore that might be of use to Harry. He and Hermione follow the old woman into her house - where a horrifc surprise awaits. Though effective in the novel, the scene is suspenseful enough that it works even better cinematically.

They find one horcrux, and dispatch it (though not without some trouble); and they begin to find out about the Deathly Hallows, three magical objects that, put together, make their possessor a master over death. The Hallows will present an interesting dilemma for Harry and his friends in Part 2. The only other minor quibble I had with the film was with some of the dialogue. There were places where characters were talking about things in a way that is designed to present the viewer with information, though often the dialogue came off hurried, or muffled, or otherwise reminiscent of mumblecore. This isn’t a problem for people who are familiar with the story from having read the novel; but for those viewers who have not read the novel, it’s a disservice. The biggest conceit of the entire Harry Potter film series is that the films generally assume that the viewers have read the books; and while this is probably the case for most viewers of the films, it is not the case for all viewers of the films. But again, that’s a minor quibble, just one of a couple in what is otherwise a very fine film.

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