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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

November 21, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is the first part of the seventh installment in the Harry Potter film series. The second part will be coming next July.

I should admit up front that I’ve never read any of the Harry Potter books, partly so that they will be somewhat fresh as bedtime story material if I should ever have to read bedtime stories to anyone. So I can’t really speak to the fidelity of the movie to its source, nor can I watch it with a connoisseur’s eye. The flip side is that — despite how the internet makes it look — there are actually people out there who haven’t immersed themselves in the Potter phenomenon, and on some level the movie needs to play to that wider audience.

Luckily I’ve at least seen the first six movies, at some point or another. With such a back-story built up, it becomes prohibitive to even attempt to bring complete neophytes up to speed. Without some sort of primer, you’ll be completely lost going in fresh. So here’s what you need to know:

There is a parallel culture to the one we know of, whose citizens all use magic. Their whole existence is infused with it, from “magical” analogues of everyday things to spells and potions with fantastic effects. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) are young wizards (and a witch, in the story’s terminology) who met and became friends at their boarding school, Hogwart’s.

Harry’s fate is somehow entwined with that of the evil wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who killed (and was killed by) Harry’s parents when Harry was an infant; the experience left Harry with a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead. Voldemort and his followers — the “Death Eaters” — see a racial aspect to the divide between the wizards on the one hand and the non-magic-using “muggles” on the other hand. In the name of racial purity, they seek to use their powers to dominate the muggle world, and they’re particularly offended by the interbred “mudbloods”. The Death Eaters manage to bring Voldemort back from the dead since he has stashed backup copies of himself called “horcruxes” — I keep wanting to say “horcruces”, but evidently Hogwarts doesn’t teach Latin — in various inconspicuous places. The horcruxes must be destroyed to finally get rid of the evil wizard; evidently without his influence nobody else will seek a final solution to the muggle problem.

At the outset of the film, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are all about seventeen. They’ve come into their own, and are able to act independently of their protective headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. It’s a good thing, too, since at the end of the previous installment Dumbledore was killed by one of their former teachers, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who revealed himself as a Death Eater. The nature of the horcruxes have been revealed; two have been destroyed, and the remaining five will serve as plot coupons through the end of the series. The three heroes must strike out on their own to find and destroy them before Voldemort’s power grows too much to be stopped.

The decision to split The Deathly Hallows into two parts may seem like a marketing plot, but I’m actually going to get behind it. If this movie and another one like it were crammed into even three and a half hours — this movie clocks in at almost two and a half — it would feel incredibly rushed. Yes, the pace sometimes wavers between meditative and atmospheric, but it never actually bogs down. The world of Harry Potter has been built up over six movies already, so there’s no need to go into any world-building asides; every sequence advances the plot. There are some action scenes, but the earlier films’ spectacle has largely given way to suspense and characterization. Despite the young-adult source, this is a grown-up movie for people who want to see more than stuff getting blowed up real good.

The flip side is that it’s not a kids’ movie the way the first few installments were. It’s dark and often depressing, with perpetually-overcast skies, even in moments of triumph. At their happiest the characters can find only momentary respite from their sense of impending doom. They’re out on their own, alone in the wilderness — or in the muggle cities, which may as well be wilderness to them — with no parental protection and the crushing weight of adult responsibility breathing down their necks. If anything, it’s that rare film directed at the late-teens and early-twenties demographic without insulting or pandering to them.

But it remains that those who have put the most into the Harry Potter franchise are those who will get the most out of it. Without some preparation, there’s a lot that might end up going completely unnoticed and unappreciated.

Worth it: yes, as long as you’re no less familiar with the rest of the series than you’re comfortable with.
Bechdel test: Another close one. I’m going to call this a narrow pass.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. defining_quality permalink
    November 22, 2010 17:53

    What did you think about the dancing scene between Harry and Hermione? It has gotten a lot of criticism, since that was pretty much the only deviation from the book.

    • November 22, 2010 18:19

      I thought it was rather sweet, actually. Firstly, it broke up a solidly down sequence and helped remind us of a happier life the characters are fighting to save. But in breaking it up, the scene kept the overall sequence from going stale. The counterpoint reinforced and sharpened the background despair.

      As for the departure from the book, I can definitely see the same effect being easier to elicit in a novel than in a movie. The two forms have two different languages, and it’s not a weakness to translate idiomatically rather than literally. I’d rather the French phrase une poupee dans le tiroir be translated into English as “a bun in the oven” than “a doll in the drawer”, for example.

      And hey, c’mon.. Nick Cave!

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