It is hard to believe that at last, at long belated last, the Harry Potter franchise is almost over. It may appear, especially to detractors, that “The Boy Who Lived” is really “The Boy Who Never Dies”, an indestructible brand that, even after The Deathly Hallows, will be continuously reincarnating in video games, toys, spinoff books, and maybe – dare I say it – a cinematic reboot. But Warner Brothers’ marathon undertaking of translating the novels onto the screen is about to reach the finish line.
Almost. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 opens(ed) November 19th; Part 2 will crown the saga this summer. Splitting the final book in two is partly a cynical money-making scheme, but I think it more importantly allows the story to surface.
Director David Yates knows this should be an epic film and quickly establishes a swift but comfortable pace. We move from Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, perfect) holding court in Malfoy Manor to Harry leaving Privet Drive, escorted by friends magically transformed into Potter decoys. This is a little too much Daniel Radcliffe to take at once, but the ensuing aerial/highway chase (Hagrid has his wonderful motorcycle) more than makes up for that.
A brief scene at the Weaseley’s recaps Harry’s quest to find and destroy the Horcruxes, enchanted objects containing parts of Voldemort’s soul. A briefer Weasley wedding is interrupted by news that the Ministry of Magic has fallen. Death Eaters separate Harry, Ron, and Hermione from the others, hunted and obstructed by dead ends and detours.
There’s a wand-waving shoot-out in a London restaurant, an espionage interlude at the Ministry, and a return to Godrick’s Hollow, Harry’s birthplace. While The Half-Blood Prince was a journey into Voldemort’s past, the Deathly Hallows explores the late Dumbledore’s background. Harry encounters old friends, foes, and places, playing detective at the outskirts of the wizard community.
It is moot to mention that this film is the darkest yet. This has been repeated ad nauseam ever since The Chamber of Secrets. You only have to look at the poster of Hogwarts burning and the tag line “It Ends Here” to get an idea of where the series is going tonally. In between all the set pieces, apparating, and colourful GBAs (Great British Actors), this Potter effort is more sombre, as if cinematographer Eduardo Serra threw out the warm colours from his palette.
Amid the ruckus, Yates focuses on the three people the stories were built around. Rupert Grint (as Ron) and Emily Watson (as Hermione) are allowed out of their two-dimensional straitjackets. Grint is given more dramatic weight when his loyalty to Harry is tested by the stagnation of the Horcrux quest. Watson is better than she’s ever been, though her Hermione still does everything practical for the bickering males. That said, these actors have trouble holding so much screen time in the second act.
It is at this lonely point – the slowest part of the novel – that the film flounders, unable to balance operatic action with long stretches of inactivity in long stretches of forest. Yates rescued Potter after the mediocre Goblet of Fire, and yet he has not left a distinctive vision that Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuarón brought to the first three instalments.
The lack of cohesion is at the center of series’ problems. Rowling was able to brilliantly construct a complete, compelling world, making the novels truly magical. Warner’s adaptations feel increasingly slapdash and derivative.
Compare this eclectic production design to the immaculate cultural detail in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, a literary adaptation imagined down to the last Eleven shoulder plate. In The Deathly Hallows the wizarding world is aesthetically patchy: the Ministry is populated by 1984 storm troopers and leaflets copied from Nazi propaganda, the Death Eaters exist in shiny black interiors, other villains are dressed and made up as punk anarchists. Rarely does this magpie job work. A remarkable exception is the superbly odd animated sequence recounting the “Deathly Hallows” legend.
Fortunately, Yates can close as strong as he opens. I will only say that Part 1 ends at a low point, a calm before the storm similar to how The Empire Strikes Back left the story in limbo. The final twenty minutes are deftly handled, acted, and poised before the inevitable blackout, giving hope that Part 2 will be an unrelenting stampede of emotion, action, and magic. May it end well there.
Advance screening at AMC Yonge and Dundas, Toronto, November 15th.