I should make a note at this stage that the version of the film that I saw was the IMAX version on the new screen that was recently installed in the Odeon Norwich. As such, this should be borne in mind when reading.
The Harry Potter series has been an interesting ride. The series has had its ups and downs, that is for sure – at times having quite a schizophrenic approach. Directors have changed, the set has been completely re-designed, and the way that each film has been shot has also radically altered. And through all of this, one thing has remained constant. This film, as critics and actors on press junkets have constantly told us, is darker than the last! I hate that word so much, but have ranted before on the subject but won’t do so here. As a critic, I have no plans here to resort to such lazy terms. I am merely interested, as we reach the endgame, in whether the series is being brought to a conclusion with a bang or a whimper.
I have to say that the omens are not good. I was not happy with the choice of director two films ago, when the future of the franchise was turned over to David Yates, only for him to impress me with his first entry. He then threw all this goodwill away with perhaps one of the weakest entries in the whole series. Despite the beautiful way it was shot, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was a lumpen, leaden effort. Add to this the fact that nothing in particular actually happens in the first half of the source novel, and you have a recipe for disaster.
I am afraid to say that although I have read every book, and seen every film I am not what you would call an aficionado. So, if you want a comment on how well this follows the novel, you may well be disappointed. From what I remember it is pretty faithful, but I certainly had no plans to re-read the book before I watched this so I cannot be 100% on how accurate it is.
We begin in an imposing, but anonymous, house where a whole group of Voldemort’s inner circle are having a conference. It is soon clear that this film is not going to hold back on the more unpleasant side of the novel, as during the meeting a Hogwart’s teacher is tortured above them using the cruciatus curse. “Help me” she pleads whilst gazing into the eyes of Severus Snape “you’re my friend!”. A few seconds later her back is broken by a fall onto the table and she is devoured by one of Voldemort’s snakes. Yes, it is fair to say that all is not well in the world of Harry Potter.
Luckily, our three heroes realise this and after a dramatic escape through the skies – and a few further close scrapes with death-eaters – Hermione, Ron, and Harry decide the only course of action is to separate themselves from their loved-ones and go on the run. In the meantime Voldemort’s henchmen have gained control of the ministry of magic and are in the process of purging mudbloods. The Nazi allegory is obvious.
On the run, ostensibly trying to find and destroy the seven horcruxes that Harry was told about in the last film – they soon find out about the deathly hallows, and realise they need to find them before Voldemort.
The film is quite a departure for the franchise. The films up to now have followed a pretty rigid structure. We open at the start of the school year, get to Hogwarts, something happens, the heroes go on a quest, and all is resolved. The big death at the end of the sixth film changed all that, and this time Hogwarts doesn’t even feature. Early on the children realise they can’t return and instead they go on the run. This means the film is essentially a three-hander – and at nearly three hours that is a lot of film for the three to carry. A lot of scenes are just the three, in the wilds of the countryside, in a tent, slowly falling apart as they realise they just don’t know what to do next. For a significant time, there are actually only two of them – meaning even more pressure on them as actors. The pleasing thing that I can report is that those three geeky children that we saw on the screen all those years ago have finally managed to morph into pretty decent actors.
This film certainly demands more of them than has ever been done before, and all three of them do extremely well. This film is certainly more of a character piece than we have seen before, with large swathes of screen time passing with no action set pieces at all. The actors have to really sell the inner turmoil they are feeling to the audience and all of them do so well. You generally do believe, when they cry, that they really are feeling that emotion. They are no longer the automatons that they have sometimes appeared to be in the past. I have certainly written before about their performances, and have noted that over the years they have got better but still been inconsistent. Here, ironically as more is demanded of them, they give their best performances yet.
As always with the Harry Potter films, the three main characters are surrounded by the cream of British acting talent. Rickman is superb as Snape as always, and some of the looks that he gives are haunting – betraying emotion he dares not betray to the world. Fiennes as Voldemort is chilling. Ironically, as we see more of him he loses a little of his mystique here – but he is still a frightening creation. The rest of the cast are all universally superb – but a special mention should go to Helena Bonham-Carter as Bellatrix LeStrange who is given much to do here and takes on her role with the usual gusto. A scene where she is torturing Hermione is quite horrible to watch.
Ah yes, those last four words are important. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a 12A and how it got that rating I will never know. There are several scenes of torture, one character gets his arm ripped down to the muscle, another has a demeaning word cut into their arm with a knife – the blood falling from the wound mirrored by a tear from their eye. And the middle section has an animation section retelling a story from Beedle the Bard. Whilst the animation is not graphic, it is certainly disturbing – including a throat being slashed. I would certainly advise you to be very careful before taking a child to see this.
So, we know the performances are good but what about the story and direction? Well, before I went to see this, I heard plenty of comments about how the middle section dragged. At least two people I knew had told me they were bored out of their minds. Having seen Yates’ work on the last film, I could believe this and was worried. Quite frankly, though – I am really not sure where these people are coming from. The film is structured, and written, very well. I suspect that people have a problem with it because of the unusual structure. All the big set pieces are at the beginning, and after about an hour, the film settles into the character stuff. But to me, I found this a brave move for a big blockbuster, which is ostensibly a children’s film. At no point did it pander to what it feels it should be offering to the audience and instead it really illuminated what these three characters were feeling and what motivated them. To me, this is probably the most intelligent of the series so far – and also features much more of the “evil” characters – who are always good value for money.
Yates seems to have realised what went wrong with the last film and to his credit does not make the same mistakes here. He shows much more confidence in his material, and moves his camera imaginatively and cleverly. He also delivers some absolutely stunning vistas during the middle section of the film which does a lot to enhance the emotional angst that the characters are experiencing. The recreation of Godric’s Hollow, in particular, is beautifully presented – managing to look picture-postcard like and intimidating at the same time.
So is this film perfect? Is it the best of the series so far? Well, I am afraid if asked this I would have to answer no. There are problems here. The story is convoluted and if you haven’t seen part six then you are likely to be very confused. Even with some prior knowledge you may find yourself struggling to keep up at times. There are also some problems within the film that are unavoidable. Events occur that will not be explained until the final film – so people who are not familiar with the story may well be feeling that they are being expected to take too much on trust. But after the poor effort last time around, this film is far better than it has any right to be. I would have thought the first part of the novel would have been almost unfilmable but Yates has proved me wrong. This is certainly the most adult and intelligent of the films, and is beautifully shot as well. It is not the best in the series (part three still holds that record) but it is certainly one of the best. I would personally thoroughly recommend a trip to the cinema to see this.
It’s very important, I think, when reviewing a film in the cinema that I give as many details about the screen and sound setup as possible. Unfortunately, cinemas aren’t always as giving with this information as they might be. However, what I can say is that I saw this film on the brand new IMAX screen which has recently been fitted out at the Norwich Odeon. Therefore, I feel confident that the version I saw should have about the best picture and sound available for this film.
The whole approach to the picture on this is totally different to Half-Blood Prince. A new cinematographer means the bleached white look of the last film has been replaced with more warmth and colour. At the same time, however, the image still looks slightly de-saturated to my eye meaning that colour never really jumps out at you from the screen.
The really notable thing about the way this film is shot is just how beautiful the vistas look. The three main characters seem to be on a mission to pitch their tent in ever increasingly beautiful spots. Thus rustic woodland competes with wide mountain scenes. But most stunningly of all, one extended scene takes place on a rocky outcrop above a large valley. The way the film is shot really brings out the beauty, and the slight de-saturation reminds you that all is not well in the world we are being shown.
Yates also shows a better sense of how to film the action sequences than he has before. The wizarding world clashes with the muggle world in ways we haven’t seen before, particularly in the opening scenes and these are handled very well. Yates moves his camera to accentuate the action – often swooping wildly without ever causing the audience to lose touch with what is going on. It holds together much better.
The print, as one would expect was clear and precise and showed no marks, defects, or degradation whatsoever.
The sound is a bit more difficult to comment on however. The blurb suggests that the laser calibrated speakers means you can sit anywhere in the auditorium and still experience perfect sound. When I arrived, the screen was almost full, and I ended up about four rows from the front.
The first thing I noticed was the numbing bass, although to be fair this may have been a sign of the IMAX speakers as it was present in the ads as well. But The Deathly Hallows goes very low at times, making your whole frame shake. It is a very impressive experience. The impressive thing, however, is this is never allowed to over saturate the rest of the sound. Dialogue is always clear and anchored. The front separation is extremely wide and plenty of off-screen effects occur to the left and right.
Where I have a problem though is in the use of the surrounds. I am not sure if it was where I was sitting, but I felt there were several scenes where the surrounds could have got much more use. They are used sparingly throughout the whole film (I can only remembering hearing them twice) but in particular one scene where one of our characters is on watch, and you can hear the snapping twigs and footfalls of someone walking nearby was crying out for some discrete rear action. Sadly, this was missing. The surround use was the only disappointment in an otherwise impressive presentation.
Ignore the naysayers and the people who say the film is boring. When a Harry Potter film fails to live up to expectation I will tell you – you only need to read my review of The Half-Blood Prince to see that. But The Deathly Hallows is actually a very good film. It dares to present a blockbuster with a different structure and a different vibe to it – and to my mind it works. It never panders to an audience, and concerns itself more with the characters than action set-pieces. Those who want more bang for their buck will be disappointed, but to me this is perhaps the most adult and mature film of the series yet.
It isn’t perfect of course. It is a very long film, in which not a lot actually happens – and if you are not expecting this you are likely to come out disappointed. It is also very convoluted. But if you are interested in seeing the characters develop, and have a sense of dread expertly built up in preparation for part 2 then this is essential viewing.
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