The Harry Potter film series is an odd beast. Rarely (if ever) has such an epic series of blockbuster films been produced essentially in tandem the books that inspired them. It's a questionable process that loses the benefit of hindsight, but of course, the upside is preserving Potter's additional edge in its massive ensemble cast, particularly the three leads, who have grown from children to adults along with the series. Even now, at the beginning of the end, it's still hard to tell if the film franchise holds any weight set apart from the books and phenomenon that spawned them, but at the very least, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 has a few new facets, seven movies in, to reveal to an audience of devoted and casual fans alike.
At the beginning, when Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron), and Emma Watson (Hermione) were first-time child actors, the simple solution was to surround them with British acting royalty that could pick up the slack, if needed. Frankly, the series has amassed such a ensemble of important UK thespians, it's hard not to imagine some of them were just sitting by the phone, waiting for the inevitable offer as the series went along. Yet, one of Deathly Hallows' most interesting strengths is the way the plot, in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione begin tracking down the remaining five Horcruxes needed to destroy Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), separates the trio from the laundry list of stars, most of whom only grab fleeting cameos across the film's 146 minutes. The bulk of the story is spent alone with Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, in the woods, in tents, during tense silences, and the mature, compelling performances by all three is, in itself, fresh and new. It might be easy to argue that the trio carried the first six movies the exact same way, but where previous chapters had, along with the constant presence of either the late Richard Harris or his successor Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, more emphasis on exposition and action, Hallows is all about emotion, something the cast has quietly but assuredly grown into.
Fans seem split as to whether director David Yates (behind the camera for the last two outings) is the best man to see the franchise out, but with each passing picture his footing feels more assured. Chris Columbus, the series' first helmer, had so much world-building to do (and did fairly well) that his actual direction was more workmanlike than artistic. Alfonso Cuaron added some definitive visual flourish, expanding the series' cinematic spectacle and scope, but Steve Kloves' screenplays were still hedging too close for comfort to the source material. Azkaban remains dazzling but rushed in its attempt to hit story beats, and although Newell's entry started to push the boundaries of the adaptation process, he only refined the things that came before. Yates, as the man in charge of the most films in the franchise, has had his chance to break in and adjust to the ill-fitting captain's outfit, and although distilling Rowling's massive tomes into fine-tuned feature films is still a rocky road, Deathly Hallows' 80 to 85% effectiveness as a film first and an adaptation second is easily a series best.
Yates' most potent contribution to Hallows is a deft juggling of the mood. On one hand, as the nearly-concluding chapter to a legitimately epic series, this is an ominous, dark movie that lays the stakes out on the table and never lets up; the threat of an impending war, and the casualties that will no doubt come with it, is a palpable weight on Harry's shoulders. On the other hand, Yates wisely avoids going completely Dark Knight; Hallows isn't for little kids, full of blood and even light sexual tension, but the series' usual sense of whimsy and light-hearted banter is not entirely extinguished. The film reaches a high point of directorial perfection when Harry and Hermione travel to Godric's Hollow midway through the picture: it's amazing how dangerous it feels for the characters to be out in the open, despite the audience's inherent awareness that nothing too serious can happen to Harry in the first half of a two-part sequel, and how emotionally powerful it is to see Harry returning to his childhood home for the first time. I would only count myself as a casual fan of the books (I read the first five), and by extension, the films, but it's a striking, moving scene that will send chills down any fan's spine. Yates also gets to indulge in a short, wonderfully rendered animated sequence, full of shadows and caricature.
The logic of splitting films into two pieces is always a little fuzzy by the time the viewer is in the theater. Obviously, Warner Bros. wants to make more money, but when Hallows: Part 1 arrives at its loose but fitting conclusion, it's hard to resist demanding to see the rest. Above all, that may be the biggest triumph of Yates' run: while he's working with the meatiest, most story-driven material of the series, his conclusions tend to feel like cliffhangers rather than momentary conclusions. The Gilliams and Spielbergs of the world might've planted unimaginably vivid images in their versions of Potter, but Yates moves the action like a conductor, adding flair when he can slip it in and keeping things on target when the films need focus. Again, it's still unclear if, in an artistic sense, it will all come together on July 15th, 2011, but for now the franchise is invigorated and as enchanting as ever.
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