Several reviews of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I have cited a pair of scenes as standouts -- a lovely dance interlude between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and an erotically-turbocharged fantasy sequence that functions as the last temptation of Ron (Rupert Grint) -- but what impresses me most is how the two go together. Heretically, the dance scene is not JK Rowling's invention. On the run from Voldemort's endless supply of assassins, and abandoned by their insecure red-headed pal, Harry and Hermione hole up in a tent in the middle of nowhere, listening to Nick Cave's "O'Children" fading in and out through an old transistor radio, until the former offers the latter his hand and for a few minutes they awkwardly, charmingly boogie with the spirit of what remains of their adolescence. Not long after, Ron returns with a weapon that will destroy the horcrux in their possession. Before he can, however, the horcrux (a piece of Voldemort's soul, one of a handful that needs to be destroyed to defeat He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named) attempts to undermine Ron with his greatest fear: a vision of Hermione and Harry together as lovers. While this passage is in Rowling's book, onscreen it's so surprisingly erotic (flirting with R-rated nudity) that it would be laughed at without the dance to precede it.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: David Yates is a filmmaker who understands the difference between a book and a movie. The first director of the series, Chris Columbus, has never even understood movies, and made two films that are the definition of hackwork; while his successor, Alfonso Cuaron, turned in a highly-praised third installment that for me, between its Jamaican talking-heads and cheesy final freeze-frame, showed the downside of artsy personal moviemaking. Mike Newell's fourth film boasted the best special effects of the series to date, but was as ham-fisted and tone-deaf as one might expect from a director who admits that he doesn't care for children. Then Yates arrived, and finally Harry Potter found its stride. The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince streamlined Rowling's plotting and found the visual equivalent to her prose without treating every word as if it were Holy Writ. As somebody once said about the Bible, Yates shows the difference between taking Harry Potter literally and taking it seriously.
Deathly Hallows, the grand finale of Rowling's seven-part saga, has been split into two films -- Part I (this one) and Part II (released next summer) -- both directed by Yates. Certainly there are monetary considerations for doing this, but it also gives the filmmakers more room to breathe. Steve Kloves, who has adapted every Potter novel except for Order of the Phoenix (Michael Goldenberg had the honors -- and did good work -- on that one), and with Deathly Hallows: Part I he's allotted more time for the character-driven moments that are his specialty. (To be honest, I've often wondered if Kloves misses the larger points of his films, which in the pre-Potter era included The Fabulous Baker Boys and Flesh and Bone.) In turn, this frees Radcliffe, Grint and Watson to show-off their acting chops, which have improved by leaps and bounds since their Sorcerer's Stone days. All three are astoundingly good in the two key scenes mentioned earlier, as well as the array of dramatic, comic and tragic beats they hit time and again throughout the film's 146 minutes. More than any previous Potter film, the appearances by the League of Extraordinary British Thespians (Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Jason Isaacs, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Brendan Gleeson) are little more than window dressing. Deathly Hallows: Part I is tightly focused on its trio of leads, and follows them from peril to peril.
Before seeing the film I had mocked reviews calling this installment the one where "Harry Potter Goes Dark," as the series has been ensconced in shadows since at least Goblet of Fire. But, I must admit, Deathly Hallows: Part I feels unrelenting in its travails and terrors. The Ministry of Magic becomes Voldemort's Vichy government, spreading Nazi-ish propaganda about the need to eradicate Muggles (non-magical persons) and "Mudbloods" (a slur of the former). Hogwarts too comes under the Ministry's jurisdiction, with Snape -- who killed Dumbledore in Half-Blood Prince -- the school's new headmaster. In the backstretch of her series, Rowling had toyed from time to time with the common template in each book (Harry stays with the Dursleys, celebrates his birthday, arrives at Hogwarts, plays Quidditch, uncovers a threat, hijinks ensue). But with Harry, Hermione and Ron never arriving for their final year of classes, Deathly Hallows marked the first time Rowling was working without a net. Her plotting occasionally got clunky and repetitive, with some rather shameless pilfering from The Lord of the Rings; yet what she was saying about her characters -- that they need to use the knowledge they've learned in school in order to survive in the world -- was deeply insightful. Considering how much emotion had been invested in the final novel by her worldwide base of fans, it was also very brave.
Hogwarts will play a more prominent role in the second Deathly Hallows film. (There is a nice bit of foreshadowing in this one -- another scene not in the book -- with Neville Longbottom [Matthew Lewis] standing up for a fellow student on the train en route to the school.) Much of Part I takes place in woods and along shores, as the search for horcruxes pulls our heroes far away from civilization. Before their departure, the semi-principled Minister of Magic (Bill Nighy, who starred in Yates's The Girl in the Cafe) has a Galadriel moment and gives
Frodo and Sam Harry, Hermione and Ron items bequeathed to them from Dumbledore's will -- possessions which, of course, will help them along their journey.
I adored Yates's visual storytelling in Order of the Phoenix and especially Half-Blood Prince. Yet there are passages in Deathly Hallows: Part I where his timing seems off. A daring raid on the Ministry of Magic is pulled off with panache. Other scenes, like an ambush on a wedding reception, fly by so fast their momentousness barely registers. The most frightening scene in Rowling's book, when Harry and Hermione encounter a woman who may know secrets about Dumbledore, has its impact diluted in the film. There were times when I wanted Yates to hold an image or a beat a moment longer. Other action sequences are protracted to the point where they're bludgeoning. (I should add that there was a problem with the sound in the theater I attended, which may have accounted for the aural assault.)
Many of the flaws in Deathly Hallows: Part I have nothing to do with the filmmaking. They're a product of an original narrative that lurches from finding horcruxes to discovering swords to searching for the "deathly hallows" themselves. In a gorgeous animated sequence that taps deeply into Potter lore, we learn just what the "hallows" are, a marked improvement on Rowling's exposition. Additionally, Yates and Kloves condense the interminable bickering of their protagonists from the novel by about 85 percent, and do their best to balance a sense of frustration felt by characters who believe they're going in circles with a clear narrative trajectory toward a climactic destination. While this certainly recalls The Lord of the Rings, another film to which Deathly Hallows has been compared is The Empire Strikes Back. Indeed, Hallows is like Empire with the lead trio sticking together (Ron's brief departure aside). The Empire Strikes Back separated Luke, Han and Leia in order to shape their characters. Harry, Ron and Hermone evolve in tandem, and more than any other film, all are given nearly equal weight.
There is so much to admire in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I (I haven't even mentioned the marvelous score by Alexandre Desplat, fast becoming my favorite film composer) with so much being eagerly discussed around every water cooler and every coffee shop I've frequented over the last few days, that I'm surprised barely a peep has been written about it so far in the blogosphere. My guess is what does eventually come will be in the form of a rant or a dismissal, which is the prerogative of the unimpressed but I think takes for granted the accomplishment of this series. Nothing quite like the Harry Potter movies has ever been attempted, and that they've grown fresher rather than more stale is a testament to the talents both before and behind the camera. So many films leave me with a shrug, often at best a flickering interest. The last few Harry Potters, by contrast, have made me feel the tingles I had watching movies as a kid. I never knew how much I missed those tingles. I do know how much I will miss this series when it comes to an end.