***½/**** Image B- Sound A+ Extras A+
starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter
screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
directed by David Yates
by Walter Chaw David Yates's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (hereafter Harry Potter 7a) is a coda for the end of a dark decade in film--a war journal, a diary of the apocalypse--and good enough to be this constant, niggling reminder that had J.K. Rowling the courage to do what it appears she intends to do at first, her Harry Potter series could have been nigh canonical instead of just pretty good. Alas, that's for the second part of this two-parter. For now, it's easy to see Harry sacrificed on the cross of his Chosen One eminence. With Yates back for his third go-round and Steve Kloves again adapting, it's a pair of newcomers to the franchise--DP Eduardo Serra and composer Alexandre Desplat (his work on Birth and Lust, Caution: tremendous)--who contribute most to the minimal, blasted feeling of Harry Potter 7a. It's empty, bleak, and stately for long stretches as our core triumvirate of Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) search a Tennysonian wilderness for some essential part of themselves valuable enough to offer up for the sake of the world. When it opens with Hermione mournfully erasing the memory of her from her "muggle" parents, the film announces itself as a triumphant return to the broken wasteland promised by The Order of the Phoenix. This Harry Potter intends to do harm.
And harm it does, with a major character maimed and another (maybe two others) dead in the first minutes during a harrowing escape full of noble, Pyrrhic gestures and action that takes place mostly in the margins of, of all things, a sober character drama. A good thing, too, as there are moments in the picture that are completely indecipherable and only really useful, if useful at all, as a metaphor for closeness, frustration, and ultimately the ties that bind and the trials that rend asunder. The film's weakest moment, for instance, is one where Harry and Hermione find an old woman mucking about the gravesite of Harry's parents and follow her into a fright set-piece with neither introduction nor resolution. But what the movie doesn't do in terms of narrative, it achieves with a powerful image of a snake erupting from an antechamber from whence a young, sexually-aware woman has previously transgressed and discovered, from what we can discern, some form of carrion. The idea of wisdom erupting from knowledge, life from pestilence, salvation from (original?) sin, reconnects the Potter story with the Christ story, underscoring in the process how less interesting the Bible is if Christ survives. Regardless, the power of the imagery of Harry Potter 7a carries it over its expository gaps and forgives its sometimes-childish conflict resolutions with dei ex machina and Encyclopedia Brown ratiocination--that, plus a bracing self-awareness that has the characters mock their own tendency towards long explanations and doe eyes. Even its heavy debt to Tolkien in this final act is reconstituted by the film's passing of an evil token between its heroes as not a representation of their avarice, but rather a reflection of their budding sexuality and, with it, a full-blown, mature sexual jealousy paid off ingeniously, shockingly, next to a frozen pond. The picture seems to understand that an adaptation need not be (indeed, cannot be) absolutely faithful to the word of its source, but that it can be completely faithful to the feeling of it. In a way, its obscurity is a boon to its mood.
I've always felt that the series was best when it focused on the racism and intolerance of its Hogwarts setting (in particular, of its Aryan villains), and Harry Potter 7a fascinatingly advances the notion that what's born in the hearts of boys gradually flowers into the ideologies of hate and exclusion. The film is seething with Holocaust imagery, from the anti-"muggle" propaganda produced by the new masters of the Ministry of Magic to the summary rendition and interrogation of random citizens to, finally, the tattooing of an identifying mark on Hermione's inner forearm, declaring her to be of undesirable blood. The henchmen for evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) are either jumpsuited goons or leather-clad stormtroopers, while quick visits to abandoned locales from previous films give the impression of ghettos cleared and populations cleansed. What I've never liked is the Dobby house elf character and the subplot, largely elided for the films, involving Hermione's emancipation of his kind from slavery. For a series and a film so interested in attacking intolerance and undermining racial stereotyping (what's not to love about witches burning "normals"?), Dobby's superior magic (shades of Spike Lee's identification of the "Super-Duper Magic Negro" archetype) and eventual sacrifice for the sake of "massah" is an instance in which a well-meant paternalism slides into the same old voodoo. And yet, at the end of the Dobby sequence, the only possible resolution that could redeem the character is the one offered up, so that even as it's revealed as an old, chewed bone, it's at least a well-loved one. Better to not have unearthed it in the first place.
Obvious, sometimes-glaring missteps aside, Harry Potter 7a's brilliant moments outweigh its bad. A dance set to Nick Cave's "O Children"* between Harry and Hermione in the midst of their flight is a standout for the gathering power of its loneliness. Others? A near-discovery at the border of a protection charm; that opening doomed flight from Harry and Hermione's disparate childhoods; a banquet of baddies presided over by the tortured, bloodied, suspended body of a woman whimpering for her life; an image of a young woman, hands red with her lover's blood, kneeling on a forest path in a neat little suit; and a duel in a rundown Piccadilly Circus dive that sees our unsullied heroes sully themselves. It takes the time to tell an entire fable through an animation done in the style of Guillermo Del Toro's preamble to Hellboy II, allows Hermione to scream in something that sounds like real suffering, and provides Grint the opportunity in a succession of wordless sequences to prove that if he's perhaps the least of the central trio in terms of obvious acting chops, he's starting to catch up. It's a summary, at the end, of not simply the Potter series, but of films like The Dark Knight and Sweeney Todd; No Country for Old Men and Where the Wild Things Are; Synecdoche, New York and all the pictures of this first decade in the new millennium that talk about moving forward from warm embraces into the dry salvages of the neglectful, capricious, bellicose world. If it sets a precedent its conclusion can't honour (and knowledge of how the book ends suggests that no one will have the heart to do the right thing), for the time being there's this open-ended, desolate march to Bethlehem into the mouth of the Beast. It's a film of great courage and artistry, a movie ostensibly for children that's also worthy of them. Originally published: November 19, 2010.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Hosted by actor Jason Isaacs, the "Maximum Movie Mode" on the Blu-ray release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I is actually a lotta fun--a mélange of behind-the-scenes fragments, first-person cast/crew anecdotes, and excerpts from the J.K. Rowling source novel read aloud by Tom "Draco Malfoy" Felton that runs in tandem with the feature on Disc 1. But between it and the six HD "Focus Points"--"The Last Days of Privet Drive" (3 mins.), "Hagrid's Motorcycle" (4 mins.), "Magical Tents!" (2 mins.), "Death Eaters Attack Café" (3 mins.), "Creating Dobby and Kreacher" (4 mins.), and "The Return of Griphook" (4 mins.)--distilled from this 168-minute HiDef supplement, I wonder if the picture quality on the movie proper didn't suffer. This is, after all, one of the dimmest entries in the series (I like what director David Yates brings to the franchise, but his aesthetic has proved maddeningly inconsistent across three films), and shadowed areas of the 2.40:1, 1080p image have, for the most part, a milky definition that smacks of compromise, as does a certain lack of suppleness to the grain structure. On the other hand, the audio is in fine form, the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track rendering a broad and aggressively deep mix with pinprick clarity, astonishing transparency, and awesome dynamic range. For a quick fix, jump to the scene where Ron is tormented by psychic projections that churn somewhat illogically but no less marvellously around the viewer as he prepares to destroy the horcrux.
Over on the second BD in this combo pack, five "Behind the Story" segments--"The Seven Harrys" (5 mins., HD), "On the Green with Rupert, Tom, Oliver and James" (14 mins., HD), "Don, Rupert and Emma's Running Competition" (3 mins., HD), "Godric's Hollow/The Harry and Nagini Battle" (6 mins., HD), "The Frozen Lake" (4 mins.)--beg the question: why weren't the aforementioned focus points grouped with these? Here's the takeaway from all the various featurettes: mocking the ease with which he channelled Emma Watson and Clémence Poésy in the Polyjuice transformation sequence, for instance, Daniel Radcliffe is honing quite the self-deprecating sense of humour; Warwick Davis took over a role (Griphook) originated by Verne Troyer for reasons that require a bit of reading between the lines; and effects have come a long way since the stone age of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. One also infers that Rupert Grint, who seems like a good kid, is more comfortable around second-tier cast members than he is around Radcliffe or Watson, neither of whom plays in Grint's farewell golf game. (Radcliffe expresses how rare it is for he and Grint to interact with such intimacy while shooting Ron and Harry's reunion at the frozen lake.) Of interest among the eight Additional Scenes (total running time: 11 minutes; HD) are the set-up for Ron's obsession with monitoring radio transmissions, a nice moment of redemption for Dudley Dursley that's elaborated upon within Maximum Movie Mode, and a pissing match that finds Ron and Harry--each armed with a wand and feeling those awkward teenage blues--in a spectacularly dark place. The touted "sneak peek" at Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II (4 mins., HD) is, frankly, nothing special; so-called "trailers" (spots for Part I's soundtrack album and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park) round out the platter. The keepcase packaging includes a combination DVD/Digital Copy of the film. Originally published: April 25, 2011.
*They are knocking now upon your door
They measure the room, they know the score
They're mopping up the butcher's floor
Of your broken little hearts return