My rubber-stamp complaint about the Harry Potter movies is that they are beholden to the books. If you see the movies without having read them, you’re at a disadvantage over the rest of the audience.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 occasionally overcomes this limitation, but there are a lot of places that only work if you already know and love the scenes.
Plot Point Barrage
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2
Briefly, we left Harry needing to find and destroy seven Horcruxes in order to defeat the noseless Voldemort, or something. The film opens on a shot of Bill Nighy, who steals every scene he’s in, sporting Einsteinian hair and a deadly serious scowl that somehow dares you to laugh. Then a dozen friends help Harry escape from the death eaters in the film’s excuse for a car chase. Some companions die, but you won’t have time to say “how sad” before it’s on to the next scene.
Luckily the film soon gets more intimate, with Harry, Hermione, and Ron heading off by themselves to find the next Horcrux. They find it during a tense and funny infiltration scene. Then it’s off to find another MacGuffin — this one a sword — to destroy the Horcrux.
Meanwhile, the forces of evil take over the Ministry of Magic and seek yet another MacGuffin, the Deathly Hallows, which are three powerful magic items that grant control over death itself.
There are two speeds in this movie: whirlwind, and “camping.” At the beginning and at the end, plot points from the book are worked in right and left with nary a smooth segue in-between. At the eye of the storm is the calm in which Harry, Hermione, and Ron try to figure out what to do next while camping in the highlands.
Ironically, it’s the camping scenes that make the time fly, and it’s the whirlwind segments that make the film seem overlong. That’s because in the camping scenes, the developments are all between the characters, which any of us can relate to. The three friends are caught in something of a love triangle. They’re too unsure of themselves to hash out their cares and jealousies out in the open, but the sad, frustrating tension is there, and it’s probably the best thing about the later Potter movies.
The trouble with the whirlwind sections is that, hard as they try, the filmmakers can’t possibly include every detail from the book; filmmakers have been trying to do it for a century without much luck. The result is a jarring mental and emotional whip crack that is only lessened if you’re intimately familiar with the books and can fill in the gaps from your own memory.
My least favorite example of relying on the audience’s familiarity with the books is the several-minute tragic death of a CGI character I only vaguely remember from a much earlier film. This character has a sudden personality change just before dying. I imagine that in the book, the character growth was gradual, fond, and justified. But in this movie, it’s more manipulative than moving (unless, of course, you read the book).
What’re You Gonna Do?
Director David Yates (returning from installments 5 and 6) occasionally tries to make Deathly Hallows Part 1 cinematic. His best success is when Hermione narrates the children’s tale explaining the Deathly Hallows. The film becomes a shadow play, almost two-dimensional and almost black-and-white at first. As the fable progresses, the shapes reveal more and more depth. It’s a (literally) fantastic scene that’s allowed to exist outside the well-establish fantasy of Scottish countrysides and CGI magic.
Some of Yates’ other attempts work less well, like the foot chase in the forest using a fast shutter speed to make a disjointed stuttering effect that’s impossible to follow.
Deathly Hallows Part 1 is probably the least-anticipated installment in the series. We know that we won’t get closure until next year, yet here we are buying another ticket to mark the time. Part of me wishes they’d just charge twice as much for the final installment and save everyone the trouble of this penultimate film.
But what are you gonna do? If you’ve invested your time in the first six, you have to see this one before next year’s finale. As much as I wanted to dismiss it, I was entertained enough to enjoy the ride. I’m just glad there’s only one more to go. I’m about ready to move on.