Monday, 29 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I

When a giant killer snake crawls toward camera and promptly chows down on a tasty human snack, you know that Harry Potter isn't the beast it once was. And that's a terrific thing to behold. Less abracadabra, broomsticks and Hogwarts (this latest entry doesn't even set foot in the school), much like The Prisoner of Azkaban, the joy of Deathly Hallows Part I comes from real emotion, not wand-waving. And of course, seeing as it's Part I of the culmination to J.K. Rowling's hugely successful book series, it's denied that sense of cathartic resolution; parents, think wisely before bringing young children, for there's not much redemption in this wintry, bleak Potter entry.

But then, both the films and books have seen their target market age with the film's characters. Younger viewers are advised to stick with the earlier entries; those who have matured over the past decade since the franchise's inception, are better positioned to understand Hallows' gloomy mix of apocalyptic despair and latent sexual tension. It's the careful application of mood that sustains Deathly Hallows in spite of numerous plot strands that are left unexplained due to the film's truncated nature. While not entirely coherent for Muggles, it's a gripping emotional experience.

From the moment Alexandre Desplat's appropriately subdued (if controversial) score teases out sparse strains of John Williams' Hedwig's Theme, the famous title logo rusting in front of us, we're dropped into a murky and stormy world that bears next to no resemblance to Chris Columbus' franchise starters. Plotting? Well, there's a lot of talk but not a lot of explanation. Just a distinct sense that Ralph Fiennes' Lord Voldemort, plus his clique of lackeys, are out to get the boy wizard, assayed again by Daniel Radcliffe. The quest this time? Well, it involves something called Horcruxes, which seem to contain something of Voldemort's soul, and which it's Harry's, Hermione's (Emma Watson) and Ron's task to destroy.

It's a film that moves in three clearly delinated acts. The first and last play most like a traditional Potter story, a rogue's gallery of British A-listers filling out the scenery from Brendan Gleeson's Mad-Eye Moody to David Thewlis' Remus Lupin. Notable new faces include a typically primal Peter Mullan as Death Eater Yaxley; Bill Nighy's Rufus Scrimgeour (whose doomy portents open the picture); and Rhys Ifans as Xenophilius Lovegood (later given the unenviable job of explaining the Deathly Hallows themselves). But it's the middle that grips the most, transforming into Harry Potter and the Dead Man's Shoes as our heroes traverse Britain in search of the Horcruxes, benefiting from less CGI, impressive aerial photography and a desolate soundscape that heighten the desolation felt by Harry and his friends.

Necessitated by the two-film structure, David Yates' third (or second and a half) effort as Potter director often feels like it's on a road to nowhere but sensibly draws on a magical well-spring of verite, washed out cinematography that only increases the riveting sense of apocalyptic despair. He pulls some stunning directorial tricks out of the bag, including a near silent woodland chase and an almost German Expressionist animated sequence. Refreshingly, unlike many of the earlier films, it also recognises that more transcendent magic is to be found in the unspoken sexual chemistry between the three rapidly maturing leads as opposed to yet another Patronus spell; it is in fact this emotional honesty that sustains the film in its dramatic gear changes as the plot never approaches coherency at any stage.

Truthfully, the reliance on franchise knowledge is somewhat refreshing, respecting the core audience and refusing to pander to those attempting to pick up the series halfway through. And if the latter's the case, what are you doing here? It makes sense to start at the beginning, even if Rowling's multitude of plot strands and supporting characters appear to have been cast into the wind. It's the most ruthlessly pared down entry of all, memorable gallery characters like Alan Rickman's Snape and Helena Bonham Carter's enjoyably psychotic Bellatrix Lestrange reduced to walk on parts.

The resultant focus goes entirely on the kids, and they by necessity have to up their game. None will be mistaken for magnetic, charismatic leads on the basis of their work here but for once, they verge beyond the competent to touch on real pathos. An impromptu dance number between Harry and Hermione (not in the book) strikes a breathless chord of romantic spontaneity, becoming one of the most memorable moments in the series so far, while Ron gets to do more than boggle-eyed fear, plumbing the depths of sexual jealousy in a shocking hallucinatory scene that will bemuse younger viewers as much as it will appeal to the alienated teen in older ones.

It's not a masterpiece; none of the films are. The blandness of the Potter character, hard as Daniel Radcliffe tries, means he's far less interesting than the fleeting array of support performers, in spite of all the anguish the narrative throws at him. It also makes little to no sense to those who haven't read the books, with key characters dipping in and out and often dying off-screen, the event signalled by throwaway dialogue. It's hard to judge on its own terms until we see the whole picture resolve itself next year, although the conscious breaking point of Deathly Hallows is a carefully chosen one, marking a truly heart-breaking moment that only elevates the sense of grief and loss.

But the film in fact deserves to be applauded for relying on a tender thread of emotional logic, rather than a static series of set-pieces. Even it is little more than an efficient, $150 million set-up, it's a vital one for laying the groundwork. It's hard to believe any viewers would care what happens in next year's installment were it not for the hard work of director Yates and his crew here. Deathly Hallows Part I may be a thankless task - but it's an exciting, scary and moving one, nonetheless.

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