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Monday, November 29, 2010  

M. Ovie Reviews: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

I know that in another movie review earlier this year, I talked about how maybe my hook as a reviewer should be willful, exquisite ignorance of source material when it comes to adaptations. I pretty much broke that rule with HP7p1, which is good, because I would have been totally lost. I missed HP6 last year and don't remember much of the book, and I only read Deathly Hallows once, shortly after it came out two years ago, so it wasn't exactly fresh in my mind. In fact, to extend the freshness metaphor, some parts of this movie were like cleaning out the fridge and there's some stuff in the back that makes you think, "Whoa, what was this from? When did we have calamari, and why are the Malfoys so stressed out?"

You know how some directors like to talk about their movies "standing alone" and "speaking for themselves"? Well, this is the opposite of that. If you were to walk into the theater after undergoing an obliviate spell that removed all memories of Harry Potter from your brain (thus making room for all of your relatives' birthdays, anniversaries, and genome codes) and decided to give this a try instead of all the sequels in the multiplex because this one's got Part 1 right in the title, you would be so screwed. Hell, even the opening credits don't show up until the end.

It's not just the fact that seven films' worth of stuntBritcasting make these movies feel like channel-surfing between PBS and if they held the Oscars on Halloween (although it's a little odd to see John Hurt show up for one line, Michael Gambon for none, and a small crowd of Harry's Hogwarts classmates being reduced to extras with names). It's that over all this time, the long-term plot has become almost insurmountably crufty. But this isn't really a fair criticism of the movie, or even a criticism of it per se. Rowling had a lot of unanswered questions to address in the last book, so of course she introduced twice as many new ones. We're already having to spend two long movies covering those, so it's not like there's a lot of time to remind everyone what the old ones are. Besides, it's not like anyone's going to be jumping into the film series at this point. The only people who still know nothing about Harry Potter are the ones who have been actively avoiding him for over a decade now, and if the movie spent the hour necessary to bring them all up to speed the other 99.9999% of the audience would get pretty pissed off.

That said, there are some pretty gnarly pacing challenges. By definition, a movie that's half of one book is going to be closely scrutinized for its use of time, plus this one has the added difficulty that large parts consist mainly of the heroes wandering around feeling lost and purposeless (when in fact the purpose is to keep the main antagonists apart long enough to arbitrarily fill up a whole school year like in all the rest of the books). Oddly, it feels both rushed and slow at the same time. One minute I was thinking, Wait, what was this bit again? Give me a minute to catch up here, and the next I was all, Yes, yes, lovely scenery, let's keep this moving. But at the same time, you have to be paying pretty close attention to learn that Snape's been made headmaster and Death Eaters are on the Hogwarts staff.

I did have two favorite parts, which I don't think were supposed to be my favorites. One was the beautifully animated telling of the tale of the Three Brothers that is the origin story of the Deathly Hallows, which was so good it was almost jarring. The other was when our heroes use polyjuice potion to impersonate some low-level Ministry of Magic functionaries, which means three no-names end up playing the leads for that sequence. I'd never seen any of them before, but they did a fantastic job of acting like Harry, Ron, and Hermione were inside their respective bodies. Unfortunately that mainly served to remind me how the only part of Chamber of Secrets I liked was the performances by Crabbe and Goyle as Harry and Ron, so that's barely a net positive.

And I have no quibble with where the first part ends, on a tragic note with a cliffhanger kicker. Couldn't have done it better myself. Of course, I know better than to try. Sometimes I'm amazed the producers didn't crack open Deathly Hallows and say, "Oh, fuck it. Six is a good run." I have to give them credit for meeting most of the challenges.

posted by M. Giant 11:23 AM 3 comments


Well said M.Giant, I thought just the same thing about the pacing and the two really good bits you talked about. I did especially enjoy that sequence in the Ministry of Magic. The guy Ron impersonated, Reg Cattermole, was played by a fantastic Welsh actor called Stefan Rhoddri, best known in the UK for his role in the sitcom Gavin and Stacey. In it he plays a coach driver called Dave Coaches - look for him on Youtube or something, because he really is a wonderful actor!

By Blogger Roisin Muldoon, at November 29, 2010 at 11:34 AM  

Agreed on the animation sequence being mesmerizing - it was SO creative and beautiful.
But I'll pipe up for another one of the Ministry employees not entirely being a "no-name". Sophie Thompson has been a standout in several Jane Austen adaptations and is Emma Thompson's sister. I squealed with a little bit of excitement when I saw her!

By Blogger Joslynm, at November 29, 2010 at 12:23 PM  

I thought the animated sequence was just lovely, as well...I thought it was extremely well done as the way to introduce the entire concept of the Deathly Hallows themselves - for a minute I was afraid they were simply going to show Hermione reading it. It's haunted me in a positive way.

I actually enjoyed the moving around from place to place sections - a) they picked some beautiful places to film; and b) it was very true to the book, in that yes, it was slow (even in the reading), but there was that sense of semi-tense waiting and waiting, and planning without knowing what they are planning FOR exactly. And anyway, I think Part 2 will be nonstop action, which will more than make up for the placid parts of this one.

By Blogger dancing_lemur, at November 30, 2010 at 7:45 AM  

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