REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS
Starting life way back in 1997 when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published, for the world’s most famous boy wizard it has been a long ride from page to screen. Now after 13 years of Harry Potter being the crux of pop culture, we are finally going to see it come to an end. The final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has been split into an epic two parter, the first of which is now on release with the concluding chapter ready for July next year.
My relationship with the Harry Potter franchise is very mixed. I am a huge fan of the books. They are fantastic works of family fiction which significantly mature with each instalment matching the maturity of their first audience, which is my generation. The films I think do short change the majority of the books, I can’t stand the Chris Columbus movies and the Mike Newell film was too ornately composed and didn’t capture the true spirit of the book.
Alfonso Cuaron and David Yates were good things to happen to the franchise, they took the films into a more visually interesting territory and they got significantly better performances out of the younger actors than the other two directors. I had very high expectations of this film, due to the last film: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince which I thought was the best so far. This first part of the epic finale has been getting very mixed critical reactions so far, and I don’t understand why as this is far and away the best film of the franchise, and easily one of the year’s finest blockbusters.
The film opens with the face of Bill Nighy as the Minister for Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour telling us that “these are dark times there is no denying” and he is right. Dumbledore has died, Voldemort’s power is rising and the wizard world is going through serious oppression and suspicion as the dark forces routinely check up on magicians blood status. Whether they like it or not Voldemort is now the true head of the magic world.
Our heroes Harry, Ron and Hermione now have to continue the task left for them by Dumbledore to destory the remaining Horcruxes and defeat the Dark Lord. Meanwhile Voldemort himself is on a mission, which Harry is trying to uncover through his psychic connection to the Dark Lord, which somehow links in with an old wizarding folk tale about the Deathly Hallows.
It is a very interesting change in tone for the Potter films, they have finally managed to make the whole world very threatening. The sense of impending doom and tragedy is very well established, you can feel the desparation oozing from both the performances and the atmosphere established by Yates. There is plenty of moody, expressionist lighting and between scenes we hear over a magical radio that wizards and Hogwarts pupils are being found dead. There are also a select group of Voldemort’s Death Eaters hunting for stray underage wizards, in an effort to find Harry. Everything is significantly more tense.
The film is also more scary and intense than before. The horror will terrify most young kids and I like that, it holds no prisoners. Yates is allowed to go where he wants with it, even allowing him to refer to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in a Ministry of Magic chase set piece. And the opening meeting between Voldemort and his minions which sees a body limp and hanging over the long table eerily recalls The Exorcist.
There is also quite a lot of sexual, as opposed to romantic, tension between the lead characters particularly in regards to Ron and Hermione. As Ron gets closer to Hermione he becomes suspicious of Harry, a result of the Horcrux (which has a One Ring effect) he is wearing round his neck. Ron is so suspicious that in an apparition he sees a near naked Harry and Hermione in a very erotic embrace. It’s brooding and the mood of the film is not suitable for very young kids.
The oppressive tone is also a result in the change of location and narrative thrust. There is no Hogwarts, we don’t even see the castle, the three companions are alone and are out in the wilderness with the tough environment to cope with. We feel out of depth along with the characters. It raises the stakes. Not only this but there are strong tensions among the group, Ron feels nothing is going forward with getting rid of the Horcruxes and Harry feels a strong responsibility to not get his friends in harm’s way. He is also letting the psychic connection between him and Voldemort get the better of him.
I have been heavily critical of the three main performers in the previous films, accusing them of being far too stiff and wooden, it is however much different here. They give more naturalistic performances with a slight melodramatic edge which is perfect for the characters, Radcliffe is particularly good considering he is required to cry twice and as viewers of the previous films will know he was never spectacularly good at emoting. I think for the actors, particularly the main three and those who have been with the series from the beginning, there is a responsibility to pull out all the stops and work damn hard to make the final movies the best of the franchise.
It goes without saying that the adult cast are impeccable. Over the years the Harry Potter franchise has provided some great roles for the British acting fraternity. Most of the great British character actors have managed to work their way into the series somehow and those left have soaked up the remaining bit parts and done there all with them. Here we get some fantastic cameos from Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy and Scottish actor Peter Mullan and others who chew the scenery whenever they get the chance.
Regulars to the series Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman and Jason Isaacs are superb all the way through. Bonham Carter is clearly enjoying her role far too much, she exudes pure evil as demented chief Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange, she is truly one of Britain’s greatest actresses. Ralph Fiennes is stellar too, putting the same malevolence and cunning that he did to Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. When he’s good, he’s very very good.
Most important of all however is the look and the craft of the film. It looks beautiful, for a Harry Potter there is a surprising amount of handheld camerawork and it works really well and matches the hard edges of the story. There is also some beautiful landscapes and vistas which has that washed out and bleak look as the previous Yates’ Potters that is as close to Bergman as a blockbuster will ever get. It is a dark looking film but it perfectly fits the material, it is superbly well lit and a lot of the time looks like an arthouse film.
Also impressive is a beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat, who is one of our greatest working composers, which tops the work of John Williams on the previous movies. And I don’t say that lightly. It is a truly epic score that is lyrical and beautiful in the right movements and powerful and thumping in the action set pieces. Also amazing is the CGI, particularly in the case of characters who cannot be done without digital aid such as Dobby who makes a nice return.
There are a couple of flaws in there, which are only minor. The ending I think goes a tad too far than it needed. The perfect note for this part to end on comes earlier when Harry, Ron and Hermione bury Dobby after he has been killed by Bellatrix, because it ends on a personal moment of tragedy which is very much in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film.
Instead they close it on Voldemort claiming the Elder Wand (one of the Deathly Hallows) from Dumbledore’s tomb. This I think would have been perfect to open the next part as it begins Voldemort’s rise to triumph before his fall. It’s important but is placed wrongly in the cutting and cliffhangers are always frustrating, Dobby’s funeral would have made it a more whole film rather than just a part of a whole.
However I cannot express how much I enjoyed this, I can easily anticipate that when I come to compile my list of films of the year it may get a look in. I think a lot of people are being overly critical of it, and it’s a shame because I am one of the very few who believes this film is the first film to truly capture the spirit of JK Rowling’s novels.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is beautifully shot with wonderful atmosphere and an appropriately dark tone, making it a very enjoyable experience.