Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1: Retrospective Part 7

When this film came out, a lot of critics complained about the fact that it felt like it was an incomplete film. And while I know exactly where they are coming from (it is half of the book obviously), I had one question to ask: Which Harry Potter film was not incomplete? What I mean to say is, which Potter film was a complete story in and of itself? Sure there are events that get resolved in those films (saving Sirius and Buckneak in Azkaban, the competition finishing in Goblet, Harry realizing he isn't alone and Voldemort getting seen in Order, etc.). However, can one honestly say that they could watch a single one of those and not be confused without watching those before and those after? What I am getting at, is that the Harry Potter films all work in function of one another and Deathly Hallows Part 1 was no different. Yes, it may have depended even more on its sequel than any others, but the point stands, it is just a part of a massive whole and people should not berate it for not having a "tight" conclusion.

Now that that is out of the way, I would like to point out that to me, this is the culmination of all the films before it. It shares all of the qualities of its predecessors while shedding almost 100 percent of its short-comings. Sure the naked Harry/Hermoine kiss was unnecessary and the most cringe-worthy moment in the ENTIRE series, but that one moment aside, the rest of the film works on all levels. Yates has finally figured out pace and balance. This is by far the most atmospheric and soulful of the films. The ambiance is unsteady, constantly shifting visually as the characters emotions and relationships shift. There is almost a constant search for balance and permanence in style that is never achieved and that is absolutely perfect for the film. We get a crowded city, a barren wasteland, the forest, a snowy ghost town, a beach, a seemingly haunted castle, etc. You get the message. From the get go, a silent sequences show Hermoine saying  a heartbreaking goodbye to her parents as she erases herself from their memories and lives. It is so saddening and disturbing all at the same time. This is no longer the children's series that Columbus set out to make back in 2001. The film traverses more moods and atmospheres than any film before it.

The film also ventures into territory that was pretty rare in this series. One particular point that stands out to me is the Godric's Hollow sequence where there is a tremendously eerie sense of isolation and loneliness, only emphasized by the snow. During one shot, Yates frames Harry and Hermoine left frame, leaving space on the right. The depth of field is extremely shallow, but Yates pans right, we can see a dark figure standing there. It is a subtle, but chilling moment to see another person reappear in such a dead locale. This and the ensuing sequence are as close as this series reaches true psychological horror. The final scene is quite possibly one of the most heartbreaking scenes in a series known for punctuating its films with heartbreaking scenes (SPOILER: Dobby's death). The arid terrain on which this scene is set only adds to the emotion that the characters and audience feel during these moments.Then there is the splendid animated sequences detailing the story of the three brothers and the deathly hallows. The scene matches the atmosphere of the film and regardless of the differing visual style is so organically integrated into the film. It may be animated, but it feels so fitting; just another rapturous spell in this magical film.

Deathly hallows Part 1 is also the first Potter film to end on such a dark, somber note. All the other ones, even in their darkest moments found ways to extract the positive from its conclusions. Not so here. Yates leaves everything so bleak and opaque, that there is an immediate sense of anticipation for Part 2 to resolve this tension. One final note is that this is by far the best cinematography of the entire series to date and it is unlikely that Yates is able to create such ambiance and mood without such tremendous work from Eduardo Serra.

 During the filming of both parts, Yates stated that Part 1 was more a "road film" and in many ways it is (I have already noted above that the style of this film is almost in search for stability in case you missed it). I would call it the "Indie" Potter in which characters and their interactions are more important than the special effects. Sure, the effects are still ever present (and ever-spectacular), but this is a story about studying the relationships of three characters whose relationships they, and we by extension, may have taken for granted for six films. Yes, they've had conflicts before, but never in the face of danger. When in danger, these characters tended to put aside their differences and work together. Well in this film, that friendship reaches its greatest degree of fracture. And because the difficulty and fracture of the relationship is so strong, the expected reconciliation later on is that much stronger. The moment where Ron returns to tell Harry and Hermoine how he found them (yes the glowing ball scene) may seem cheesy, but it is actually quite a poignant intimate moment between two characters who are slowly but finally finding a way to express their feelings to each other. Yates gives us plenty of quiet moments besides this one. My personal favorite is when Harry puts on music and begins dancing with Hermoine. There is such a tremendous sense of sexual tension between these two during these moments that truly make us question the directions of the characters. For the first time, the characters and the story seem to stray from their straightforward trajectory and path into refreshing unpredictability. But the sexual tension that Yates builds in these relationships isn't the only quality that he is able to build with this scene. Just seeing Harry and Hermoine take a break from the magic wands, the spells, the CGI to do something that is so universal and that audience can actually relate to (dancing) is extremely touching.

But this film doesn't work unless the three leads are on board. And they all deliver. From watching this film and comparing it to the first, it is astonishing to see how much these three have matured into their characters. They are all in complete control  and all seem to be relaxed throughout. No more traces of overacting or overworking. Radcliffe no longer looks uncomfortable. He finally shows the quality that he got rave reviews for in Equus. Watson's Hermoine has blossomed into such a lovable character and Ron has become someone to root for (as opposed to the whiny annoying Harry clone he was in the first two films). As for the rest of the cast... well, they are all pretty much cameos. Though I will put in a good word for Helena Bonham Carter who I have neglected time and again in the previous posts. I have always enjoyed her Bellatrix and loved to hate her, but this is the first time where I really thought she was more than just a gothic sadistic clown with a wand. She is really scary at the end of this film as she tortures Hermoine. Truly horrifying and wonderful all at the same time.

Alexadre Desplat is brought on to score the film and he proves to be the true successor to John Williams: Finally! I loved Patrick Doyle, but I was always missing John Williams from Azkaban for the rest of the series. Desplat almost makes you forget about Williams with glorious music that matches Yates' soul-searching mood. The music is throughout intriguing, never falling into banality or boredom as is the case with Hooper or even border-line imitation with Doyle (though again, I will stress that his work is much appreciated in Goblet).  After listening to his rapturous score, the only thing I can wonder is WHY Yates took so long to get him? It is finally refreshing to listen to premiere music by a premiere FILM composer.

I could continue to go on and on about how much I love this Potter, but I do not really feel that justice can be done to this one unless one watches and experiences what I've been talking about. Yes it is the SLOWEST of all the films (surprise surprise considering Yates' tendency to go into hyper speed in his two previous installments) and it lacks in the humor department (another departure), but it has more atmosphere and mood than likely any of the other predecessors before it. And most importantly, it is headlined by three actors finally in complete control of their craft and a director who is complete command of the material. This is by a long shot, the most mature of all the Potter films and worth a reassessment by those who may have overlooked its wonders the first time around.

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