Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Review and Analysis of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One

Ever since the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the wonder and sparkle of the magical world that Harry Potter dwells in has gradually become less awe-inspiring, less colorful, less foreign, and increasingly more realistic. By now The Sorcerer's Stone and The Deathly Hallows do not look like they could even belong to the same franchise but for the continuity of characters. Harry, Ron, and Hermione began their journey as children, and now seven movies later childhood innocence and marvel has eroded, and even in a world of enchantment, the characters see their lives (and by extension their world) through the eyes of battle-weary adults, and no amount of magic and shine can sugarcoat it.

When Harry Potter entered the world of Hogwarts, all things were new and phenomenally intriguing. Even the simplest things, like candy, had varying degrees of novelty that were completely absent from the Muggle (non-magic) world. Without even interacting directly with spells or enchantments, he could not walk through the grand halls of Hogwarts without an overwhelming eyeful of mysterious and wonderful sights like distinguished ghosts roaming about, candles floating alight in midair, staircases that move, framed portraits that live and speak, and teachers that periodically take the shape of animals. A now older and more experienced Harry has traded in the wonder of wizardry for the horrors of war. 

When young Harry began his journey at eleven years old, he certainly had more to deal with than your average eleven year old. Before his school days at Hogwarts Harry was raised by verbally and emotionally abusive relatives that are never (onscreen at least) brought to account for their cruel negligence. After a few short life-changing moments Harry is bound for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He learns that his deceased parents were in fact murdered by the darkest wizard of all time, who has now targeted Harry. While these things are no easy matter for a child of eleven, by the time Harry and his friends reach the point of The Deathly Hallows more is at stake than just Harry's life; the conflict has escalated to proportions so mammoth, the fearsome trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione is not enough anymore. At the beginning of the franchise Harry survived a series of deliberately malicious events. Now at the beginning of the end, the character Harry Potter is the centerpiece of a war in which everyone must fight or fall. Or both.

The first moments of The Deathly Hallows make it clear that there will be no joyful moments wandering Diagon Alley or fantastic discoveries in the hallowed halls of Hogwarts. Hermione's opening scene depicts her erasing herself from her parents' memories to protect them from reprisals, while Harry watches his abusive relatives flee the house for the same reasons. The characters that we met as children have grown up ahead of their time. Harry is no longer swept away by the delight of riding a broom in a game of Quidditch, but by the tender wonder of a kiss. His worries expand far beyond his own safety as his survival will determine the fate of the world as he knows it. Ron is no longer jealously overcome by Harry's fame, but by the false image of Harry and Hermione in a lovers' embrace. Hermione in turn does not concern herself with homework and knowledge anymore, but with the crushing weight of loneliness and fear.

The power of fear is easily identifiable as an overlying theme that penetrates all levels of the magical world. Harry has been named “Undesirable Number One”-- a catchy way of saying that Harry Potter is the Ministry of Magic’s most wanted. On the note of Ministry of Magic, the entire system has been permeated by the dark side and leads a holocaust on anyone found guilty of the unspeakable crime of blood fraud. Suddenly the Ministry of Magic determines that only pure bloods are able to wield magic, and trials are held to investigate the “blood status” of witches or wizards that are suspected of having corrupted lineage. At the helm of this movement is the saccharine, pink-loving Delores Umbridge, who is herself guilty of blood fraud but uses a valuable artifact as counterfeit proof of her family line. In a particularly suspenseful sequence of events, the heroic trio infiltrates the Ministry of Magic disguised as employees. Inside, they witness the horrors that fear has impressed upon the once shining world of magic. Purebloods are to the now hostile magic world, the Aryan race. In a movement reminiscent of the Third Reich, pamphlets and fliers are printed from the Ministry advertising the purge of all who, regardless of social or political status, are deemed "impure."

While the trio must deal with the oppression of Lord Voldemort's influence, the evil side of the conflict faces its own struggles. Despite evil's saturation of the land, the servants of The Dark Lord are as fruitless in their pursuit of Harry as Harry is in his pursuit of the horcruxes. Both sides of the conflict take in varying degrees of victory and defeat, though victory at times seems overwhelmingly in favor of the Dark Lord. But just as fear rules the administration of the Ministry of Magic, fear rather than loyalty drives Lord Voldemort's Death Eaters. Times are difficult for the servants of Lord Voldemort, as evidenced in the disgraced state of the once-aristocratic Malfoys. Not so long ago the wealthy Malfoys wielded their influence in the Ministry of Magic as well as in Hogwarts. Lucius, once a powerful Death Eater, has been reduced to a trembling, cowardly pawn whose own master is disgusted by being forced to have such dishonorable subjects. The elite Death Eaters were in the past the most dangerous force to be reckoned with other than Lord Voldemort himself. Harry, Ron, and Hermione now dodge the snatchers-- sordid mercenaries employed by the Dark Lord to hunt down and arrest those that protest the new regime or are in league with Undesirable Number One.

Harry, Ron and Hermione spend weeks and months on the run, camping in forests and seeking clues regarding the whereabouts of the horcruxes. Their friendships are tested, patience wears thin, and the bond that has sustained the three through the last seven years of their lives begins to fray. Although their mastery of magic is useful, it is no longer any comfort. In one especially tense moment, Hermione stands face to face with a squalid snatcher. There is a charm that is hiding her from view, but the other can smell her near enough to touch her, and Hermione can do nothing but stand absolutely still, as if evading a predator. In multiple instances throughout the film the three (or for a while two) barely escape perilous situations and while magic is indispensable to them, it is their wits and courage that ultimately save them.

The Harry Potter franchise has had its fair share of problems, and of the kind that would inevitably sink any other series. The illustrious saga has been handled by no less than four directors, and yet each movie has carried off the transitions with grace. Every film in the series is distinctly unique in its delivery of the script, but remains cohesive with the other films. Even the strikingly stylized Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban flows with the two previous (albeit lighter) films, while simultaneously setting up the darker tone for the films that follow. The sparkling, colorful styles of Chris Columbus that launched the first two movies would not work with the dark and gritty themes of the later movies. The Deathly Hallows is appropriately the most serious and foreboding film so far. 

The evolution of the style of Harry Potter closely mirrors the characters' own journey from childlike wonder to mature realism. It is this mature realism that sets The Deathly Hallows apart from its six predecessors. Harry and company have faced life-threatening situations since year one, but circumstances are more intense this time around. Rather than being caught up in climatic battles or sequences of peril, their lives are consistently, relentlessly at stake-- a fact that takes a serious toll on their relationships. In one particularly sweet scene, Harry and Hermione are so overwhelmed and exhausted that they do not exchange words, but Harry offers his hand to Hermione and they dance together. It's a well-placed, necessary scene to temporarily relieve the tension and heaviness that runs throughout the rest of the movie. Elsewhere in the film, characters endure chases, narrow escapes, brutal captures, and plenty of fights. So intense is a scene involving Hermione being tortured by Bellatrix that most of the scene was left on the cutting room floor to avoid an R rating. Reportedly, filming of these sequences was so intense that actress Helena Bonham-Carter felt the need to approach Emma Watson to ensure they were still on good terms.

On the subject of intensity, another element that sets The Deathly Hallows apart is the number of casualties. In previous installments viewers endured the emotional passing of Cedric Diggory and Sirius Black. In The Deathly Hallows Part One, three previously seen characters meet their demise; a number that promises to climb in part two. Only two of these supporting character deaths are seen onscreen, but viewers that have been keeping up with the names and characters from previous films will understand the gravity of the losses, and certainly feel deeply the emotional departure that closes the film. This particular character death ends more than just the film; it is the final nail in the coffin of childhood. As this innocent supporting character draws his last breath, all that was childlike and innocent and safe in Harry's life is gone. An unceremonious death earlier in the film drives the same point, but happens so quickly and in such an intense moment that there is barely time to grieve. By the time the last character death closes the movie, it is clear that the days of Hogwarts are gone forever and that no part of Harry's world is untouched by this evil. 

On more technical levels, The Deathly Hallows usage of music is flawless. The score is used sparingly in favor of the natural sounds of the forest, enhancing the feelings of solitude and fear. Newcomer to the franchise, composer Alexandre Desplat scores an appropriately melancholy score ranging from mellow and mournful to intense and panicked, subtly communicating a variety of moods in between. Furthermore the special effects are seamless, effectively blending into the story rather than distracting from it. Even in sequences where CGI was undoubtedly used (such as the escape from Privet Drive), it is wielded with such craft and style that one is completely lost in its magic. 
All the actors turn in sterling performances, but especially Rupert Grint, whose frequent function as the comic relief is appropriately absent. Here, Grint displays his dramatic range in ways that the script did not previously allow. As a result, the character of Ron is given layers of complexity that were only hinted at in preceding installments. His moments of comic relief still appear, but with less consistency than his shining comedic turn in The Half Blood Prince. Grint's Ron was never meant as a sidekick to Harry Potter, nor was he particularly molded into the clich√© best friend role, but now more than ever Grint proves that he can carry a movie with just as much charisma as the other leading actors, and his character is a hero all his own. Grint has developed steadily as an actor since the first film, with each performance capitalizing on the last. True to this tradition, The Deathly Hallows is a standout performance from Rupert Grint. 

Emma Watson's Hermione has been the anchor of reason and logic throughout the saga, and "The Deathly Hallows" is no exception to this trait. Watson elegantly communicates the inner conflict and extreme emotional stress that her character endures without becoming whiny or weak in any way. Hermione's journey from childhood to womanhood has been guided by textbook knowledge and ingenuity born of dedicated study. Watson clearly portrays how Hermione has met her greatest challenge in matters of the heart as they are not solved through her crutch of intellectualism. Furthermore Watson proves that there is more to Hermione than academics, as her foresight and quick wits save the trio on many occasions. As the lead female, Watson is a striking presence whose femininity is tastefully rather than sensually used (most of the time) as a welcome contrast to the scruffy and dirty environment that hosts the bulk of the movie.

Daniel Radcliffe is probably the most harshly criticized actor in the franchise, and opinions about his talents vary greatly. From a personal perspective, after seven movies it is hard to imagine that anyone but Daniel Radcliffe could portray the leading character of Harry Potter with such feeling and connectable personality. He may be the Boy Who Lived, but Radcliffe gives Potter a life that also makes him feel like the Boy Next Door. Radcliffe's range as an actor has certainly been tested adequately in the course of the first six films, but "the Deathly Hallows" is a grand display of his abilities. In the course of the film, Radcliffe's Potter runs a gambit of emotions from romantic nervousness to lonely solitude to fuming rage, and never once does he seem insincere or unconvincing. Early in the film Harry is shown walking through his aunt and uncle's recently abandoned house and looking into the cupboard under the stairs. No flashbacks are shown, no words are said, but Radcliffe's execution of the moment leaves the viewer in no doubt of what Harry is thinking and remembering. Radcliffe has been criticized for lacking a wide range of facial expressions and inability to deliver his more passionate lines. This stems from simply a difference in style rather than a lack of talent.  

The supporting cast of The Deathly Hallows has a small but powerful role. The movie follows Harry, Ron, and Hermione almost exclusively with very little interaction with others. However, each supporting cast member gives their few moments of screen time devoted treatment, and the result is memorably effective. Scene-stealer Helena Bonham-Carter has a somewhat reduced role this time around, yet her menace is absolutely chilling in her brief moments. Reprising the role of Lucius Malfoy is the always pristine Jason Isaacs, who is a welcome return to the series after an absence from The Half-Blood Prince. His screen time is brief, his lines are few, but his moments perfectly communicate his disgraced state. Furthermore there is never enough of Alan Rickman's unforgettable Severus Snape, but his short (almost silent) scene at the opening of the film will keep the non-readers wondering about his motives and intentions. 

If The Half-Blood Prince felt like a long buildup to a grand finale, the Deathly Hallows Part One is a continuation of that buildup, and only the start of the grand finale. As is the case with the other "Harry Potter" movies, "the Deathly Hallows" is one of a series, not a stand-alone. It is unique in its style, theme, and tone, but remains faithful to the spirit of the first six movies while avoiding redundancy. It is successful as the beginning of the end, a deeply contemplative character movie, and a clutching drama. Fantasy movies of this caliber are rare and difficult to come by, but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One not only satisfies, but excels on all levels except one; that we now have to wait for Part Two.

(In writing this review, I deliberately suspended my knowledge of the book or commenting on its comparison to the written material. Perhaps at a later time another piece will be published discussing the differences. But for the purposes of commenting on the movie alone, this review does not take into account the departures from the book, nor do these considerations affect its rating or quality as a movie. "You should never judge a movie by its book" -- Roger Ebert)

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