Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One might be the most unsettling, bone-chilling, flat-out-terrifying children’s film ever made. As readers of the book already know, Part One is practically a carefree romp compared to the upsetting events that occur in Part Two. The final book in J.K. Rowling’s seven-part saga of witchcraft and wizardry has been cleft in twain for its cinematic release; a move that is both cruel and absolutely necessary. Some will argue that the resulting product is merely half a film, and they’d be right. It’s also one-eighth of the full story, so why start complaining now?
The division is not as essential as it was with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (in which part one and part two practically fell within different genres). But there is just so much content in Rowling’s Deathly Hallows book – so many set-pieces, so many emotional beats, so many characters, so many character-arcs – it would be unfair to expect director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves to cram them into one bladder-considerate sitting (and unfair on the audience expected to endure the resulting four-and-a-half-hour emotional rollercoaster). So instead of focusing on the inherent limitations of the film’s structure (as well as the numerous supporting characters who are left on the sidelines) allow me to celebrate that which is achieved in HPATDH: P1. And it’s an awful lot.
Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson all return as Harry, Ron and Hermione for the most strenuous and draining film of the series so far. Over the last ten years, we’ve watched them evolve from cutesy child stars to talented actors (although the spellbinding Watson has been breaking away from the pack for a while now). They’ve grown so adept at conveying stress, guilt and deepest fear, it now seems wildly out of character for them to crack jokes (Grint’s Ron is surely the most heavily-burdened comic relief in cinema). The trio have abandoned their final year at Hogwarts in favour of attempting to overthrow the newly empowered Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his snivelling right-hand-men Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). Voldemort’s first orders of business since being resurrected from his kinda-death include taking over the Ministry of Magic, terrorising the mudbloods (wizards and witches with non-magical parents) and generally restoring panic and dread to the wizarding community. Needless to say, with all this talk of “pure blood”, plenty of propaganda posters and numerous trials and interrogations, the Nazi/KKK/McCarthy allusions come thick and fast.
So, how does one kill he who can’t be killed? Handily, through a series of video game-esque tasks. Voldemort’s soul has been transplanted into seven magical objects called horcruxes, and it is up to Harry and friends to locate and destroy each of them. Once this has been completed, Voldemort will be ripe for the taking. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This instalment is about setting the tone (oppresive!), establishing the stakes (high!) and ultimately defining the film’s aspirations (grandiose!). In all seriousness, I can’t recall any recent blockbuster epic with such well-defined consequences. The danger is no longer contained within the walls of Hogwarts; it stretches out into the streets of London.
I think back to the sweet-natured, but ultimately modest, early instalments of the Harry Potter series, and it now feels as if I’m focusing on the quaintest elements of a giant gothic portrait. Part One of the Deathly Hallows offers us the opportunity to step back and look at the saga as a whole, before we finally farewell it for good. Although the first couple of films appealed to people of all ages, they were children’s’ movies. No one would dare say that about The Deathly Hallows (despite the fact I did just that in the opening paragraph). Yates shoots it like a horror film, and the shrieking, ear-piercing sound design is intent on keeping viewers in a constant state of anxiety. Characters die, nay, are killed (although – and this is one of the film’s failings – rarely on screen). And in one of the film’s finest moments, a haunting little animated parable explains the film’s title – complete with depictions of the grim reaper, suicide, slaughter and reanimated corpses.
Part One is not without its problems. First of all, the delightful Evanna Lynch is brutally underutilised as the loopy Luna Lovegood. John Williams’ spine-chilling Harry Potter theme is also unfortunately absent (although Alexandre Desplat does a solid job at the conductor’s podium). Finally – and I said I wouldn’t focus on this –the film is missing a totally satisfying conclusion. Once Part Two arrives and we have the completed saga within our grasp, I will likely no longer care about Part One’s abrupt ending. Until then, consider this the first half of my review.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One arrives in Australian cinemas November 18, 2010.