Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 Review
This review contains spoilers for previous films in the series, especially Half-Blood Prince
Following the death of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has gained control of the Ministry of Magic. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) meanwhile has to hunt down and destroy the remaining horcruxes, significant objects in which Voldemort has hidden parts of his soul. All have to be destroyed before Voldemort can be overcome. Harry drops out of Hogwarts in his final year and he, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) remove themselves from their families and friends for the sake of their safety. They go in search of the horcruxes with little information as to their whereabouts.
It's a good question as to how many people are following the Harry Potter film series who have not read the novels. I'm not one of them. Three years on from the publication of Deathly Hallows, I can still remember the anticipation in the days leading up to it. There had even been at least one book (David Langford's The End of Harry Potter) which speculated as to what that closely-guarded seventh volume would contain. And then, postmen worked overtime on Saturday 21 July 2007 to deliver copies in their millions. All that for a book – a hardback at that. Some people had finished reading the novel by the end of the weekend. (I'm not that fast a reader – it took me a couple of weeks.)
Now the film of that seventh volume is upon us, and while I'm sure there's anticipation, for most viewers we know what happens. It's a different type of anticipation: the urge to see the book given flesh.
The Potter films have kept up a level of quality control that's unusual in a long – and high-budget – film series. At the heart of it is the script, which is again the work of Steve Kloves, who has adapted all the novels except Order of the Phoenix. The novels are long, especially from Goblet of Fire onwards, and much has had to be removed to fit the stories into two and a half hours of screen time. Bearing in mind that these are feature films and not miniseries, this has been done well on the whole, and in many cases Kloves's scripts have been the tough-love edit jobs that the novels should have had. Only occasionally does this seem awkward, for example when Kreacher the house elf turns up in the current film when his scenes had been removed in the earlier ones. However, Deathly Hallows, while it's still the second-longest of the novels, felt much tighter than the three which preceded it (Order of the Phoenix especially). Wisely, the makers of Deathly Hallows are releasing the film in two parts, splitting the story around page 405 of my hardback copy (out of 607 pages in all). Some material is new to the films, notably a lovely scene early on where Hermione says goodbye to her parents in a particularly magical way.
Given the plot structure, this is more of a three-hander than previous films. Gone are scenes of school lessons and quidditch matches; instead we have what amounts to a road movie with Harry, Ron and Hermione searching the country for the horcruxes. Of the other roles, many of them are not much more than cameos. (Richard Griffiths returns as Vernon Dursley, having had his scenes removed from Half-Blood Prince, but if you blink you might miss him.) Fortunately Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have grown into their roles – it's a spooky experience watching them age over the series, though the first two are actually older than the characters they play. Otherwise, the villains are in the ascendant, with Fiennes oozing menace. The duplicitous Snape (Alan Rickman) is in many ways the most complex character in the story, though casting Rickman makes him more charismatic than he is in the original. Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter continues a startling turn as Bellatrix Lestrange, both childlike and lethal by turns.
Along with a talented screenwriter, the producers have hired good directors, certainly from the third film onwards. (And even Chris Columbus did a better job than he could have done with the first two: concentrating on keeping the story moving, he reined in his tendency towards sentimentality.) David Yates, directing his third film in the series, does a good job in keeping it all together, including some well-achieved setpieces such as an aerial chase early on. Visually this film is less showy than previous ones, with a new DP (Eduardo Serra) eschewing for the most part the colour washes that Bruno Delbonnel used considerably in Half-Blood Prince. Like the books, the films have become much darker as they progress. The 12A certificate is certainly earned, so parents of younger children be advised. One of Harry's allies is killed early on, and there will be others before the final credits roll.
This is of course just half a film, and it ends on a cliffhanger for Part 2, which is due for release on 15 July 2011. However, there's a strong sense that the series' many threads are being pulled together, and that we're gearing up to a big finale. Which of course, most of us now know about, but that doesn't mean we don't want to see it on screen. I certainly will find it difficult to wait.