Sunday, November 28, 2010

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One
Directed By: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter

First things first: I've never read J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Therefore, I go into each film without any expectations and I can leave the theatre never feeling disappointed. However, because I'm unfamiliar with the books, I found this latest film a little hard to follow, compared to the others.

Peter Jackson managed to make all three of his The Lord of the Rings films a cohesive story. They followed one thread and worked well, both together and as individual, stand-alone films. I find that this has never been the case with the Harry Potter franchise. Granted, there are a lot of films that the screenwriters have to struggle to string together, yet for someone like me who has never read the books, it can be alienating. Each Harry Potter film has had a new director and, as a result, has a different tone and atmosphere than its predecessor, which I also think is the root cause of some of its issues. I think it makes them feel like jagged vignettes that don't quite fit together as a whole.

All that being said, Deathly Hallows is the best film in the franchise since Alfonso Cuaron directed the third instalment, The Prisoner of Azkaban. For the first time since this series first started back in 2000, I felt like things were finally starting to get interesting. It just unfortunately took six films to reach this point. After a whole lot of anti-climaxes and false starts, things are being set up for a final duel between Harry and Voldemort. The plot of Deathly Hallows is essentially all the exposition stuff that needs to get out of the way before the final film this July. We have Harry preparing to face Voldemort. We have Hermione and Ron getting closer to revealing their feelings for one another. We have Voldemort getting his hands on the (apparently very important) wand that was in Dumbledore's possession (help me out here, Potter fans. I forget what the combination of the wand, cloak of invisibility and ...that other thing ...meant). Anyway, Voldemort now has that wand and, from what I gather, that's a very, very bad thing.

Visually, the film is fantastic. The kids are no longer at Hogwarts (thank god for small miracles was about time the series broke away from its formulaic plotting). It was nice seeing the three leads away from school and their friends and teachers. As a result, their travels take them to some dark and visually stunning areas of England, where Dickensian villains in plaid pants and ponytails lurk in the shadows. It was a refreshing change.

The reason this film works so well, is the acting. By far, it's the strongest film in terms of acting for this franchise. We finally see (and hear!) more of Voldemort (played by the incomparable Ralph Fiennes). I mean, here's this fantastic villain and he barely registers any screen time. Only Rowling would relegate a great bad guy like this to the background for the sake of a bunch of children and their uninteresting Hogwarts teachers. Fiennes is perfect in an early scene where he's meeting with other evil minions (including Helena Bonham Carter's Belatrix and Jason Isaac's Lucius Malfoy). He's all slitherly, creepy perfection. Even Isaac's small role as Lucius is excellent. If nothing else, this series has never been short of brilliant veteran British actors. The same can be said for Alan Rickman, reduced to a small role in this film, but still, as always, reliably wonderful. Another wonderful casting choice was David O'Hara (he of crazy Stephen in Braveheart) as the man Harry inhabits to enter the Ministry of Magic. This might not make any sense, but once you see the scene, you will know what I mean. O'Hara perfectly captured the posture and mannerisms of Harry/Daniel Radcliffe to the point where I wish Harry would stay in his body for the duration of the film. It was a wonderful, entertaining role.

Most surprising, however, are two of the three leads. I've usually been pretty hard on Emma Watson in past films (she being the Queen of Runaway Eyebrow Acting). Watching Deathly Hallows, however, I wondered if she'd taken acting lessons. She seems to have matured as an actress, going for subtlety over exaggerated reactions. She's reigned in those eyebrows and blossomed into a solid young actress. Rupert Grint has finally been allowed to move on from his previous role of comedic sidekick. He's actually given dramatic scenes and he's more than up to the task. Out of the entire series, Ron is my favourite character (and it's not just because I'm a sucker for redheads). I always thought Grint seemed like he had a good performance in him, but was never given the chance to shine. He was more than up to the task in Deathly Hallows. My problem is with Daniel Radcliffe as Harry. I find his performance uneven and far too forced. He doesn't have the natural charm and charisma of Grint or the fiery subtlety of Watson. He's nowhere near as atrocious as the actress who plays Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), but he's definitely the weakest link of the three leads.

Overall, it's an entertaining film and, as I said earlier, the strongest instalment since The Prisoner of Azkaban. In an uneven series (with formulaic plotting, unexplained plot scenarios and the most anti-climactic death scenes of main characters I've ever seen on film), Deathly Hallows promises the series will go out with a bang. Although it's essentially only half a film, the final cliffhanger scene even had me intrigued. Perfect? No. A solid set-up vehicle for the final film? Yes.