Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dark Days: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I: A Review

It is an apocalyptic time. Dumbledore is dead, the Ministry of Magic has become a tool of Tom Riddle, the dark Lord Voldemort, and in the opening scenes in which the Order of the Phoenix summons all its powers to spirit Harry to a safe house, even their leader Mad-Eye is lost. It remains only for Voldemort to take Harry's life by his own hand, and his domination of the magical and muggle world will be complete.

Part 1 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has the three apprentice wizards, Harry, Hermione, and Ron, breaking away from their elders and taking on the task of finding and destroying the six remaining horcruxes of Voldemort, in each of which resides part of his being and powers. Despair, loss, and loneliness go with the three, no longer merry children eagerly welcoming adventures, but young adults who realize that the weight of a sinking world is on their young shoulders.

In a symbolic poignant farewell to their former selves, we see Emma Watson as Hermione magically expunging herself from the photos (and thereby memories) of her parents to spare them the grief that she fears is to come. Together the friends travel through a wintry wasteland, finally finding only one horcrux and destroying it near the end of this half of the film of J. K. Rowlings' final book.

The adjective everyone uses to describe the film is "dark" and there is no better word for it. Filmed in half-light throughout, many of the scenes take place at night, lamplit, or in a cloud-covered landscape of what appears to be an eroded lava field. The principal actors, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, are thin, their faces drawn, their costuming subdued tones of gray and brown. Their relationship, too, is also strained to the bone, showing a touch of romantic rivalry between Harry and Ron over Hermione, Ron's resentment at always being Harry's second, and Harry's despair in knowing that his own death is almost a surety coupled with his reluctance to take his friends with him into that dark night. The dialogue is spare, with the young but seasoned actors up to the challenge of portraying this tension without the cover of words. Unlike his brief but terrifying cameos in the early films, Voldemort becomes a major on-screen character, including one stunning and iconic scene in which he opens Dumbledore's tomb and takes the fabled wand from his dead hands.

This is not a movie for youngsters. For one thing, the viewer must have really read the books, especially Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7). Director David Yates and chief writer Steve Kloves follow Rowling's text more respectfully in this film than in any before. Although there is plenty of action, viewers who want to see gratuitous video-game style wizardly duels or CGI monsters will not be satisfied. What is there is well done: there are Voldemort's familiar, Nagini, and plenty of chase scenes, but they do little to advance the plot. Rather, the story focuses on the final development of the major characters and the overall theme, preparing the viewer for that inevitable end to come in the final movie.

Like the hero saga Star Wars for an earlier generation, the sequence of Harry Potter books and movies eerily parallels events in their real-time world. The books begin in 1997 with the formation of the friendship between Harry, Hermione, and Ron which anchors the series, filled with youthful hope, schoolboy high-jinks, quirky ghosts, amazing airborne games, and wonder-inspiring wizardry, all symbolically lighted brilliantly by the blazing candles of the great hall at Hogwarts. But the world grows dark, times grow hard, and hopes dim to the lantern-lit interiors of their little tent as the three insurgents press on alone in their quest.

Is it all worth seeing for the long-time Harry Potter fan? Oh, yeah.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, is rated PG-13 and runs two hours and 26 minutes.



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