Eugene Weekly : Movies : 11.24.10


Thick with Story
Deathly Hallows keeps the magic alive
by Molly Templeton

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1: Directed by David Yates. Screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling. Cinematography, Eduardo Serra. Editor, Mark Day. Music, Alexandre Desplat. Starring Daniel Radcliffe. Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter and Bill Nighy. Warner Bros., 2010. PG-13. 146 minutes.

As soon as the first doomed character appeared on screen in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, I started sniffling. You can argue as much as you like that dividing Hallows into two films was a greedy move on Warner Bros. part, meant to ensure they keep the millions rolling in a little longer, but many of us simply don’t care. Hallows was always going to be a beast of a film — dense, dark, frustrating and moving — and to let it sprawl over two parts guarantees that those of us who’ve been glued to the Potter tale for more than a decade get more detail, more loyalty to the book and more time with the characters to whom we’re so attached.

And as it turns out, Hallows is just right: Smart, swift and neatly paced, it takes the repetitive elements of J.K. Rowling’s book and uses them to heighten the sense of pervasive threat and powerlessness. Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves, who’s grown ever more nimble at translating Rowling’s stories to the screen, don’t waste time reminding us what happened in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, or explaining the little details of the wizarding world, and they’re also not afraid to leave things hanging, to be explained in Part II (which comes out next July).

Hallows is a grown-up Potter film with a grown-up Potter. There’s little to be seen of Hogwarts this time, and no time for trips to Diagon Alley or hanging around with Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). There’s no time for anything but trying to avoid Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his minions, who, in quick succession, attack Harry as he moves from his childhood home to the Weasleys’ Burrow; take over the Ministry of Magic; terrorize a wedding; and find Harry even when he, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) take refuge in a plain old non-wizarding coffee shop. Harry and his friends have  nowhere to hide and nothing to do but keep running, and the frustration this causes infuses the entire film. From an early scene in which Hermione casts what must be her most difficult spell to the damp tent in which our heroes spend the movie’s middle section, Hallows is cool and gray and green, shadowed and spooky. The trio, trying to figure out where to look for the Horcruxes — talismans that will help destroy Voldemort — move from damp, leafless forests to spare, rocky beaches and windy cliffs. Even the small town of Godric’s Hollow, where Harry’s parents once lived, feels dark and muffled. 

Yates and Kloves have a lot of history to pack into Hallows, which, had it been just one film, would have been infodump after infodump: Here’s the history of Albus Dumbledore! And now, the story of the three brothers! With more time to play, they find more elegant ways to explore and set up the second quest that sets up Part II. A gorgeous animated sequence tells the story that gives the book its title — the tale of three brothers who won magical items from Death. If Harry’s neverending quest for magical items has a certain videogame quality, it’s there in the book as well, but Hallows — at least this first part — manages to keep the Horcruxes and Hallows prominent even as it foregrounds the relationships among its trio of friends. Despite the darkness, the grim and ceaseless threat and the cold and thankless quest, there’s one comfort — the established bond between three young wizards who know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and have fought battles together for years. Grown up and grown into themselves, Radcliffe, Watson and Grint carry Hallows alone for long stretches, and they’re more than up to it: Watson, calm and thoughtful, has lost her twitchiness; Grint’s finally found Ron’s loyalty, even as it’s tested; and Radcliffe, who’s spent the most time outside the films establishing himself as not his character, has a gentle resolve that’s exactly what Hallows’ eventual conclusion needs. 

Part I has an Empire Strikes Back ending. There’s conflict and loss, and more to come; the dark is rising, but the good guys are together. It’s not an artificial cliffhanger, and it’s unexpectedly satisfying. Just the right amount of story remains to unfold.