Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows – Part One (2010)

Title’s a bit of a mouthful, huh? But then, the Harry Potter series is nothing if not occasionally clumsy.

Potter screengrab 1I suspect that the Potter series may be the longest-running consecutive series of films, with 8 titles (including the unreleased follow-up to this entry) spread between 2001 and 2011. This excludes James Bond as the films are episodic. It’s an achievement in itself, and it’s also been a unique experience to watch the actors grow from very young children into (mostly) more skilful young adults – all under the tutelage of a variety of directors.

A brief précis of the plot, for those living under rocks or who have forgotten great swathes of this long-running series: the return of the eeevil lord Voldemort is no longer in question, with his servile Death Eaters (half-cartoonish and half-threatening evil wizards and witches) and Dementors (soul-sucking Ringwraith wannabes) directly assaulting those who stand against them. The Ministry of Magic – the unspecific governing body for witches and wizards – has at last publicly vowed to stand against Voldemort. Towards the end of the previous film/book, the sagely grandfather figure of Albus Dumbledore was cut down by Death Eaters, shortly after guiding ‘chosen one’ Harry towards the revelation that Voldemort can be defeated by finding a series of artefacts known as ‘horcruxes’. And so the series builds towards its finale.

Potter screengrab 2At the outset of the Deathly Hallows 1 Harry, with friends Ron and Hermione in tow, is being moved to a safer location for his own protection, and a substantial band of escorts and decoys has been gathered to facilitate this. It goes wrong almost instantly, with enemies waiting in ambush, and casualties are incurred in the act of ferrying Potter to safety. This scene immediately brings home what had previously been a more abstracted or occasional sense of threat. Throughout the preceding films we have been repeatedly told how great a threat the magical world is facing but have rarely witnessed it: in the first moments of this film we see a defiant speech which rings of a last stand, the brutal sacrifice of a prisoner by a council of evil (gathered around a long table in a castle, of course), and then our heroes fleeing desperately for their lives. This scene also emphasises a sense of epic bombast that the series has often promised but rarely delivered.

From that point on we’re back to a Harry Potter staple: mystery-solving and MacGuffin-chasing. Unlike the best of the form, a Potter mystery can’t be comprehended in advance by the audience because the pieces aren’t all there before them. There’s a small sense of pleasure to be derived from the experience of revelation, but how much more rewarding it is to make educated guesses at meaning. As for the MacGuffins, well, there are four more horcruxes to locate and destroy, and that’s not to mention the eponymous Deathly Hallows – a series of three more bloody objects to chase down. The Potter franchise has always dealt in the archetypal but one wonders if Rowling has gone overboard here for lack of alternative ideas.

Potter screengrab 3Unfortunately for our heroes, it soon transpires that moving Harry to a safehouse was a waste of time – another staple, the series being notorious for padding. Death Eaters overwhelm the safehouse within seconds and those gathered flee, with the heroic trio teleporting (‘apparating’) to London – fortunately for them the ideal place to try and hunt down the next horcrux. It turns out to be in the possession of an irritatingly prim woman who’s heading up a literal witch-hunt in the now-subverted Ministry of Magic, identifying ‘mudbloods’ (the children of a magic-user and a ‘muggle’, or non-magical person) and seeing them imprisoned or, presumably, executed.

This is one of the more enjoyable sequences in the film, since the trio’s method of gaining entry is to knock out and impersonate Ministry staff members. There’s a good balance between the sinister presentation of the Stalinist new Ministry (people being dragged away by uniformed soldiers at random, checkpoints, propaganda mills, kangaroo courts and so on) and the inherently humorous portrayals of the teens occupying the bodies of adults. The adult actors do an entertaining job imitating the mannerisms of their younger counterparts as well as their obvious awkwardness and fear in an environment where they feel grossly out of place and lethally threatened. I particularly enjoyed David O’Hara as Harry, who manages to wear his own clothes as though he were a child wearing his father’s suit, complete with awkward stiff-armed gait and the reserved expressionlessness that fear can bring.

Following this sequence the film goes almost post-apocalyptic, with the trio venturing through the wilderness amidst various scenes of isolation. Grand, empty vistas and landscapes; deserted, partially destroyed caravan parks; walking beneath huge bridges devoid of activity. It is as though the rest of the world has abandoned them – an obvious attempt to make their plight seem all the more desperate. One wonders how, given the ability of evil-doers to locate our heroes with relative ease, their surviving allies struggle to do the same. Unfortunately the film begins to drag at this point, with the trio’s directionless quest almost functioning as a metaphor for the story’s lack of direction. There’s a predictable bit where tempers fray and the evil of the MacGuffin in their position seeps into their minds to poison their fellowship friendship – nooo, my preciousss! One member of the trio even leaves, although of course that’s just so he can conveniently show up again in time to save the day (see, even he can find them again – where are all their powerful wizardly allies, eh). Then the trio hop between a series of setpieces and showdowns while they attempt to move the plot forwards work out how to defeat Voldemort. At one point we’re even treated to a lengthy animation describing the backstory of the aforementioned Deathly Hallows. It’s a lovely piece of highly stylised animation although one wonders how necessary it was. I wonder if it represents a feeble attempt to boost sales of 2008’s The Tales of Beadle the Bard, a book which some reviewers found wholly unremarkable. This may seem unfair, but forgive me. I was watching a Harry Potter film and thus my cynicism glands were working overtime.

Potter screengrab 4The film ends, tidily enough, with a heroic sacrifice and the villain gaining another piece of what he seeks. Gasp! What a cliffhanger!

As has been common of the Potter films from the 3rd entry onwards the set design is fantastic, between the tangentially fantastic Victoriana of the wizarding world juxtaposed with the bustling cities and tidy suburbs of the muggles and the desolate beauty of the wilderness. The performances also portray a growing degree of seriousness and gravitas. Particular kudos to Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy. His role in this film is relatively minor but given a small amount of screen time he offers a suitably conflicted portrayal of a child desperate to follow in his father’s footsteps, but also repelled by what is demanded of him. (Equal parts childish bravado and appearing on the verge of tears, which to be honest is how I imagine a spoiled young adult would feel when placed in perpetually terrifying circumstances.)

One problem facing this more serious, deliberately ‘darker’ entry into the series, is that the whimsical silliness left over from its more innocent, playful and childish beginnings feels grossly out of place. Assonant names like Rita Skeeter and the irritating nasal whine of Dobby the house-elf are two obvious examples; see also the clunky terms like ‘horcrux’ which I’ve quoted above. I’m sure it’s easy for sufficiently immersed fans to disregard this, but for casual followers they are more grating. Minor details such as these are also symptomatic of a larger problem within the series: that it has never been quite sure what it wants to be. Initially it was a story invented for Rowling’s own child; later, it broadened into a bloated fantasy series following our heroes through their lives – their ordinariness made extraordinary through fantastic analogy. And now it is an epic struggle between good and evil. The argument that it is a series which has grown up alongside its viewers and readers has some merit, but still feels like wallpapering over the cracks.

That said, despite all the flaws of the story and series this film is built upon, and the problems inherent with hacking a story in two and separating those pieces by a year, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part One is an entertaining film that manages to sustain a sense of threat and tension throughout most of its length. It sags in the middle and only finds its feet clumsily after that through a series of enjoyable set-pieces, but this film still represents the near-culmination of a story told over almost a decade, and it’s difficult not to be at least a little enthralled by that.

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