What’s Good:David Yates! Creature! Dark Ron! Random Nick Cave dancing sequence! The lack of a color (is this a David Fincher movie?)! And the treat of all treats is that I no longer have to endure Michael Gambon as Dumbledore!
What’s Not:Having to wait eight months to see the second part to a story that I already know feels weird. That it’s still very exciting is a testament to this durable franchise.
After almost ten years of spells and awkward snogging the “Harry Potter” series finally slows down enough to catch its breath and gather itself as it prepares for the end. Upon hearing the last (and best) “Potter” adventure, “Deathly Hallows,” would be split in two I groaned almost as loud as when I heard the news that super short “The Hobbit” book would be two parts. Anyone who has seen the previous films knows a two parter wasn’t really necessary because however big the phone book size “Potter” volumes have been in the past the film version usually covers all the bases to varying degrees of success. For every exquisitely paced “Half Blood Prince” there’s a breakneck wizarding debacle like “Goblet of Fire” that is all plot and no substance. Splitting a big franchise in two is obviously motivated by money and that’s a shame but the odd thing is that cashing in afforded Part One of “Deathly Hallows” to take a step back from the formula and be more artful in its approach. As an example of this what I consider to be one of the highlights of the film franchise occurs in this movie. Harry and Hermione are languishing in their tent of boredom listening to the radio for news about their friends. Suddenly a song breaks through the static, a grat Nick Cave song called “O Children,” and the two start to dance. They share a moment and their spirits are soon lifted but only for a moment. It’s a quick, almost throwaway scene that has no real bearing on the plot but, so what, it’s organic and contains more emotional resonance than almost any other scene in the series. That scene and many more would not have been included if the there was only one movie so there’s an upside to greed.
The first thing that occurred to me, and others might benefit from approaching the material with this in mind, is that this film is basically one big spy movie in disguise. A spy movie with magic which automatically makes it cooler than most spy stories! Instead of running into trouble as they usually do Harry and co. must sneak around because Big Brother, er, Big Wizard I guess is after them and getting caught equals certain death. The Death Eaters (the Nazis of the magic world) have infiltrated the government and since Potter is public enemy number one this is the first film that is not set at Hogwarts (and… yay!). Every corner holds menacing secrets and ever face is potentially fatal (especially old ladies!). There are so many scenes of sneaking, lurking, waiting, hiding, gadgets use and the continual reliance of alternate identities that “Deathly Hallows” is more “Mission: Impossible” than it is “Harry Potter.” Which is awesome!
The momentum, as I mentioned, shifts from the young characters dashing from setpiece to sepiece to a more reflective story that focuses on character, mood and atmosphere. Thankfully all three are some of the best of the series. The movie focuses almost entirely on the younger (well, older now) actors (sigh, we’ll have to way till summer to see Snape steal the show) and while the three leads Radcliffe, Watson and Grint (sounds like a lawfirm) have never been what I would call great actors, at least when compared to their adult co-stars (trying to act next to Alan Rickman must be like trying to act next to a black hole with awesome hair), the three charming actors really seem to have found the inner core of their characters this time around. The key is that they tap into that without the usual straining. When they whip into one of their emo spells it’s not even annoying any more. It’s relatable and, well, human.
Director David Yates basically saved the Potter movies. He brought some much needed consistency and clarity to the often muddled, rambling and inconsistent storytelling. Columbus gets a lot of credit in my book for laying the foundation but he ran out of steam about ten minutes into his second movie while Mike Newell never even got past the opening title credits before falling into a Hagrid sized hole of suckage. But Yates marches on, rarely stumbling and always surrounding himself with great talents. The cinematography by Eduardo Serra (new to the series) and music composition by Alexandre Desplat (waaaaayyyyy better than John Williams) are top notch. The mood is soggy and does a great job at putts the viewer in the shoes of the characters while and atmosphere is richly dark to a point of monochromatic exhaustion. Totally appropriate considering “Deathly Hallows Part One” is the “Empire Strikes Back” to Part 2’s “Return of the Jedi” (just substitute house Elves with Ewoks). After the movie I felt like I needed to watch a Mexican sit-com to get my eyes back to normal (not really). As the characters weave in and out of trouble I often got lost in the infinite blacks of the sets ranging from the cold, fascist Ministry of Magic headquarters to the many dark and drab camping vistas that the characters find themselves in as they wait, and wait and wait for, uh, something. The feeling of uncertainty is as potent as one of Harmonie’s good luck spells but, alas, people don’t like uncertainty. I can imagine critics and audiences will find this open ended approach to be misguided and hard to sit through but I found it to be a refreshing and at times even thrilling treat for loyal fans wanting to see something of substance that isn’t getting its balls busted by the tyrannical requirments of plot and forward progression. It’s not the best “Potter” film but it’s certainly the most thoughtful.
So here we are, almost at the end and however much we know EXACTLY how that end will come to pass (because God forbid a Potter film deviate from the near biblical Potter cannon) it’s still a bit sad to see Potter’s adventures winding down. No “Lost” and now no more “Potter?!” Tis a sad time for nerds. I didn’t so much grow up with Potter and co. as I grew older with them and, you know what, maturity suits this series very well. With the best Potter director of all time (David Yates) at the helm once again with “Part Two” I am hopeful and filled with the feeling that could watch Harry Potter movies for another ten years.
Ranking Potter Movies (with revised grades):
1. Best: Half-Blood Prince (Yates): A-
2. Sorcerer’s Stone (Columbus): B+
3. Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuaron): B+
4. Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (Yates): B+
5. Order of the Phoenix (Yates): B+
6. Chamber of Secrets (Columbus): D+
7. Worst: Goblet of Fire (Newell): D