HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1 (2001) MOVIE REVIEW

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1 (2001) MOVIE REVIEW

Title: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
Year: 2001
Genre: Adventure, Family, Fantasy
Play time:  
Director: Chris Columbus
Screenwriters: Steve Kloves
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, the beginning of the end of what turned out to be a wonderful movie franchise, is the darkest, most deadly-serious Harry Potter yet. David Yates, who has directed the last three films does some sophisticated, tremendously atmospheric work here. The lead actors have never been better. And for the first time since Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban raised the standard for the series to a level no previous or subsequent entry has met, the movie threatens to break just a little bit free of its source material and take one or two tentative independent breaths.

And yet Deathly Hallows Part 1 — or Harry Potter 7A, as some have taken to calling it — is my least favorite Potter since Chris Columbus got the ball rolling nearly ten years ago. This is for the same reason that Deathly Hallows is far and away my least favorite of the Potter novels, namely: it is the first time that the series is forced to live and die by J.K. Rowling’s main story arc. It does not end well.

The goal of 7A is to set up the final showdown between Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and the dark wizard Voldemort (a noseless, reptilian Ralph Fiennes, who’s disappeared into this role over the years). Rowling’s story requires the film to do a lot of work to get there. As a result, it’s complicated and heavily expository, with many peripheral characters returning or making first appearances, and a lot of mythology (magical swords, horcruxes, ultra-powerful wands, etc.) getting hastily thrown into the mix. There’s a lot to cover, the movie moves fast, and Potter newcomers — is there such a thing anymore? — will be hopelessly lost.

But what this installment is missing is the ingenious school-year formula that lent the series so much of its charm. No more potions classes, Quidditch, prefects, “10 points to Gryffindor,” Professor Dumbledore (who died at the end of the terrific Half-Blood Prince), Hogsmeade, or surreptitious nighttime jaunts to Hagrid’s. The focus is single-mindedly on Voldemort. The movie is, in effect, a straight-up, plot-driven thriller.

And… it’s fine. It’s brisk, and well-mounted, and the action scenes have a nice sense of both excitement and play. (Our three heroes’ attempt to infiltrate the Ministry of Magic in disguise is a lot of fun, a franchise highlight.) But it reminded me, first and foremost, of how fundamentally bland Rowling’s plotting turns out to be. I don’t actually care about Voldemort. Neither Rowling nor the films convince us of much more than that he is very evil indeed — a generic sort of evil, embodied by his hairlessness and affinity for snakes. He must be defeated, Harry is the only one who can do it, etc. The whole thing with the horcruxes — pieces of Voldemort’s soul tucked away in various significant objects — is kind of mechanical and boring; a quest manufactured to give the characters something to do. Though the series’ strengths lie elsewhere, Deathly Hallows‘ focus is very much here. The result is a beautifully executed movie that’s about a whole lot of stuff that’s not very interesting.

There’s still a lot to admire here, from the elegiac tone set by the mournful opening sequence and reinforced by the windswept outdoor locations, to the host of lovely character touches that pervade the film. When they’re not chasing those damn horcruxes, Harry, Ron and Hermione are hammering out some serious personal issues, and the movie comes to life. There’s a moment — not in the book — when Harry spontaneously invites Hermione to dance; a heartbreaking attempt to momentarily lurch out of the darkness that surrounds them. It recalled, briefly, the triumphant and sad hippogriff ride that ended Cuaron’s miraculous Prisoner of Azkaban.

Deathly Hallows Part 1 is beautiful, sensitive, well-made, and all-around solid. But it’s also marking time. It’s the only part of this epic story that can’t quite capture the imagination.

 

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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