Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Seems strange, mate. Dumbledore sends you off to find a load of Horcruxes, but doesn’t bother to tell you how to destroy them. Doesn’t that bother you?
Perhaps the most polarizing “Potter” feature given that it breaks away completely from the expected formula—a warm and usually amusing exposition, an exciting return to Hogwarts, mysteries that must be solved and misadventures that follow, a heartfelt closure—it is quite an achievement that “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” works at all. David Yates’ confidence in telling an epic story has never been more apparent and he does so, ironically, by keeping it small most of the time. In this chapter, the focus is on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) as they flee and hide in the wilderness while attempting to figure out how to destroy Horcruxes, objects that contain pieces of Voldermort’s soul. As long as these Horcruxes remain intact, The Dark Lord cannot die. Two have been destroyed, one by Harry in “Chamber of Secrets” and the other by Dumbledore in “Half-Blood Prince.” The trio has Salazar Slytherin’s locket in their possession.
Those who crave in-your-face action are likely to be disappointed with this installment. Focus is on the dialogue, particularly detective work, the rhythm behind each exchange, and establishing a sinister aura. The screenplay by Steve Kloves trusts that the audience are already invested in this world and the characters who inhabit them. And so nearly every moment must connect to personal bonds, adventures, and themes established prior. Moments of levity can be counted on one hand. Even then a joke that lands or a sweet gesture proves evanescent. We get a sense that to laugh or smile during this woeful time is inappropriate. Even the look of the picture is dominated by blues and grays; the score never draws attention unto itself.
The pacing is unhurried. It languishes. The middle of the picture is a considerable challenge given that Harry and his friends are shown—more than five times (I counted)—sitting about while deep in thoughts. It is so un-cinematic at times that I would sit back in disbelief—not because the approach doesn’t work but because it is a big gamble for a mainstream blockbuster. I admired its daring, its willingness to show its witches and wizards on the verge of exhaustion, of ennui, of defeat. We understand why Ron, for instance, keeps close to his radio. He listens intently to names of folks who are reported to have gone missing. He fears for his family. He, like Harry and Hermione, is helpless. And that breeds anger, the need to place blame. The inevitable outburst between Ron and Harry here is one of the most heartbreaking in the series precisely because we know much they love one another—not simply as best friends but as brothers.
When the film gets an adrenaline boost, we cannot help but watch wide-eyed. There are two standouts: an early sequence involving Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) leading a group of Harry look-alikes (one is real, others are fake) to get The Boy Who Lived to safety and the other involving a hostage situation in the Malfoy Manor while Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is away. Just when you think the demented Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) couldn’t be any more despicable, she digs a new hole with a smirk on her face. Notice it is never about who lived or died; it is about the fight the characters exhibit and the sacrifices they’re willing to make—not for Harry or for the cause… but because it’s who they are. Yates never lets go of this understanding.
Most remarkable about “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” is “The Tale of Three Brothers.” This animated sequence is narrated perfectly by Watson. Her voice is so soothing, graceful, like she’s telling us a Grimm fairytale. The animation is stunningly beautiful, particularly its use of sharp angles and shadows. Notice that although not a word is uttered by the brothers or Death, who wish to claim their lives after they outsmart him, the sequence is so alive that it leaves plenty to the imagination. Of course, this children’s tale must be connected to the titular Deathly Hallows. This sequence need not have been animated. The tale could’ve been told by one character to another: simple, straightforward, no decoration. But because it was chosen to be presented in animation, it gives the impression that the those involved in the film wish to deliver something special.