It’s interesting to note that the Warner Brothers logo at the start of the Harry Potter films has been getting progressively darker with each successive outing. The allegory is simply, of course, as with each passing year the stories have become darker and darker as author J.K. Rowling has matured in her writing, so too did her characters as the obstacles they face become ever more dangerous and ever more dark; death and destruction has been boiling under the surface ever since the first outing, but now it’s out, death is everywhere; beloved characters have passed on and, it seems, no one is safe. And thus, the Warner Brothers logo of tonight’s feature is even more tortured, it rises out of the dark storm clouds, creaking and turns to rust, no one is safe, not even a logo ... And so begins the first part of the final Harry Potter story, the Deathly Hallows – the stage is set, it's dark, depressing, dank with doom and gloom, a far, far cry from the first in the series; there is little fun to be had and there are no saviours to call on, Harry is out on his own ...
Directing duties were once again given to David Yates; I was extremely enthusiastic about his first outing on Order of the Phoenix citing it as second only to Cuarón’s spectacular treatment of The Prisoner of Askaban when I looked at the First Five Years box set back in 2009. His ability to cut huge, huge swathes out of the original text but still maintain a credible narrative that crucially didn’t feel like it had massive chunks missing out of it was something only Cuarón had previously achieved and it is what makes them the better films. My enthusiasm waned, however, with his next outing, as I found the Half-Blood Prince to be a rather muddled affair by placing the wrong emphasis on the narrative drive something was lost; it was a decent enough re-telling of the story, but that story upon which it was based is, itself, quite flawed – a book that exists only to reach the conclusion – and Yates’ treatment followed the same path; so unlike Year Five which was an unmitigated success, Year Six kind of sunk without a trace. Indeed it actually put me off the franchise, I saw the film at the cinema, as I had all the previous outings, but it proved to be my last; Deathly Hallows parts one and two have been seen on my own home system. Worse still, even though I bought Year Six on Blu-ray it still remains in its wrapper; thus when I come to tonight’s feature I haven’t had a Potter fix for some two years – and that is too long to just pick up from.
Each of the books is an individual story; yes they follow on from each other, but it is possible to pick up any one of them, read and enjoy without too much prior knowledge of the preceding title. That is not quite the case between Half-Blood and Hallows – they are indelibly tied together, far more than any of the other stories, in fact J.K. herself views them as two parts of the same book. Thus whilst it is just about possible to read and understand Hallows the novel individually, it works far better in conjunction with Half-Blood as an accompaniment. This follows for the films, in fact, even more so – you simply cannot come into Deathly Hallows (Part 1) without prior knowledge of the preceding film (or, even better prior knowledge of the books) as it follows the same themes, ideas and picks up directly after the events in Half-blood. This is a bit of a double edged sword, yes it’s great for continuity of the series (and mimics the books) and respect for the fan base – but this is no longer an individual film, it cannot be watched in isolation, a fact I am acutely aware of due to my own extended break between this and Half-Blood. Come to Hallows with this mindset and all will be well, come to it in isolation (and let’s face it, who would?) or after a deal of time has passed and expect to be asking yourself a lot of questions that begin with “Why?” or “What?” However, let’s take a closer examination of tonight’s feature.
Dumbledore is dead, killed by Severus Snape in front of a hidden Harry, and with it the wizarding world is plunged into chaos. The Ministry of Magic struggles to maintain order; even the muggle world is being affected. Harry and Hermione have to take drastic steps to hide for fear that Voldemort, who is gaining in strength daily and killing indiscriminately, might find and kill them. The opening montage imparts all this information very quickly, and in a film as long as this, it rushes through lot of information. We witness poor Hermione removing herself from her parent’s memories, Harry being left alone in the Dursley’s home, his one true protective sanctuary and a place of such misery in his life, now an empty shell, as empty as his life now feels. (Shame a couple of scenes where by Petunia and Dudley lament what’s happening to Harry were removed from this moment – they are available in the deleted scenes section). It is a bleak opening and one that follows on directly from Half-Blood in both tone and mood. Things do look up in the first big set piece of the film; a number of the Order of the Phoenix turn up to help Harry escape, each with their own protector and there is a brief reunion with friends and acquaintances of old before an ambushed escape sees one member killed and another injured. Whilst the escape scene is wonderfully seen and very dramatic, the news of the death is somewhat glossed over with a single line – the impact for such a beloved and powerful character, should have been sustained, more emotion needed to be wrung out, and this is a slight failing with the treatment given – in favour of getting to the main cast and their tribulations, Yates rushed these early emotive moments – the same can be said for the brief respite during the wedding; there was no joy and no happiness so that when tragedy strikes its impact is lessened – these are short missteps that have a greater impact further down the line.
Yates has done a brave job of jettisoning the traditional ‘Harry Potter’ film for something dark, moody and very character driven – of course a lot of this comes from the source novel, but Yates has proved he can fillet a script and still make it great, and what he has done here is a cross between his Year five and Year six adaptations. And a lot has to do with the commercial decision to split the final film into two parts, as there is a lot time spent on areas that would, I’m sure, not have had a look in, had it been a single film - aspects that can be viewed as a blessing, or as a curse, depending on your point of view. I have already lamented over the decision to gloss over certain emotional aspects early on in the narrative; well once our three main cast escape and go on the run, all that changes and the film becomes a study of loneliness, alienation, patience and understanding and all of it resting on the shoulders of Dan, Rup, and Em. We’ve watched these three young actors grow up over six films, but it is only in this last part that they really get to flex their acting talent to such a degree – for this middle portion of the film we are out of the fantastic and into the melodramatic and they really shine. And whilst this great from an actors craft point of view it does slam the brakes on the dramatic narrative. Now it is fair to say that this is exactly what happened in the book; a large portion is dedicated to the three lost in the woods, figuratively as well as literally, and in following the novel to such a close degree Yates has inherited the novel’s own problems – not a lot happens in the first half; i.e. the duration of this film in fact. And whilst that is laudable in what is supposed to be a ‘kid’s fantasy adventure’ it doesn’t quite manage that fine line between dramatic prose and boring. (This can be extenuated if you are required to draw upon forgotten knowledge from an extended break between films.)
Things do pick up once our intrepid trio are captured and we move into more traditional fantasy and jeopardy and the film does end on a typically sour note – one that is needed to lead into the final part of the franchise. All this is well realised and excellently seen. The overall tone of the film is one of depression – the characters are at their lowest ebb of the franchise and if you look at dramatic prose this film should be considered to be the middle section of a trilogy – thus it needed to be the darkest, and have the characters at their lowest – in that regard it is a monumental success. But viewed as an individual film it is seriously flawed as it cannot exist without its surrounding parts. The Two Towers manages to maintain autonomy, as does The Empire Strikes Back – both exhibit the same story telling prose (middle part of a trilogy, lowest point for the characters). The commercial decision to lengthen the final film into two parts may have some bearing, as a single film might have been tighter, without losing any of the dramatic tension in the central portion. However we’ll never know.
So is it a good film? Well, the debate rages on – personally I think it is a good film, in that it is brave and explores an area of fantasy that has seldom been looked at - but - I don’t think it’s a particularly good Harry Potter film as it cannot exist without its surrounding parts. Roll on Part 2, coming real soon.
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