Wednesday, November 24, 2010

REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Yes, it delivers. And no, it should not have been one movie.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, is to be sure, a long tease of a movie. Watching it, I got the distinct sense that the real fireworks won't explode until Part II comes out next July. Still, it was fun to watch the long fuse burn and see the sparks shoot off it.

Some detractors have complained that nothing really happens in this movie, that it's all setup and no payoff. Furthermore, certain wags have said that splitting Deathly Hallows was merely a commercial move, not an artistic one.

I haven't read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows yet. I own it, but have only read the first couple of chapters, because I didn't want memories of the book to influence my viewing of the film. Even so, I can tell that splitting the book into two movies was the right thing to do.

Anyone who pays attention knows that JK Rowling jam-packs the Potter books with plot and details. To cut into them too far is to cut some of the spirit out. To those who say this should have been one movie, I ask "OK, genius - where do you make the cuts?"

Sure, you could argue that there are an awful lot of scenes of our heroes wandering through the woods and brooding as they try to find the pieces called horcruxes that would destroy Voldemort. And indeed, there are a few scenes where the pacing is a bit slack. There are too many fades to black, which stall the momentum of the story, But on the whole, the movie works because of those scenes in the woods, not in spite of them.

By paring the action down to its bare essentials, screenwriter Steve Kloves forces the movie to rely on what has always been the series' greatest strength - the chemistry between Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson.

Watson has always been my favorite of the three, and she turns in her best performance of the series. Hermione has always been bright and resourceful, but especially in this film, she has to show strength and a vulnerable core at the same time. Watson is especially good at acting with her eyes. The look on her face when she casts a memory-erasing spell on some loved ones is heart-wrenching.

Grint's strengths have always been the comedic moments, and he has a few in this film, but this story forces him to tap into his dramatic strengths to show just how loyal Ron is. He disappears for a good portion of the picture, and when he returns, it's a powerful moment.

All this leaves Radcliffe playing something of the straight man this time, but he is strong as usual, and it's clear the next movie is when he will truly take the spotlight.

Deathly Hallows also boasts some of the best visuals of the series. Director David Yates seemed a little unsteady when he took the chair on Order of the Phoenix, but he has grown in strength and visual inventiveness each time out. The dazzling presentation of the Deathly Hallows, played in digital shadow puppets and narrated by Watson, is the best moment in the movies since the time travel scenes in Prisoner of Azkaban.

The Potter series has often been compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and what's particularly striking about Deathly Hallows is how much it resembles the Rings movies, especially The Two Towers: Heroes separated from their allies, take long trek on foot left mostly to their own devices, heading into ever more foreboding danger.

I know pretty well how the story ends, thanks to ever-so-pervasive spoilers. The fact that doesn't bother me is a testament to how strong Deathly Hallows 1 is. If this is Harry's Two Towers, then Part II is shaping up to be like The Return of the King. We'll find out in what now seems like eight very long months.


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