Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (pt.1), 2010, dir. David Yates

The end has come, but not really so much at all, no.

Seeing the first half of the two-part finale to the Harry Potter saga, I can fully appreciate the artistic need to break the book apart; even more, I can better admire J.K. Rowling’s gargantuan, overstuffed seventh novel and the scope of both the specific narrative of The Deathly Hallows and the overarching narrative told over the course of the series. Put really simply, a lot of stuff happens in Deathly Hallows; the big complaint about the book seems to be that it’s loaded with filler, which is true, but it’s also brimming with innumerable locations and chock full of plot points. If it sags in places, the sheer volume of action that takes place makes up for said slackness.

Which is why I fully believe that breaking the book up makes good sense artistically and not just financially. Yes, the notorious “kids hanging out in the woods doing nothing” scenes make their way into the film, but bookending those bits are an adrenaline-fueled chase sequence, a wedding, magical duplicity, wizard duels, and a couple of truly saddening character deaths. In other words, there certainly are places where the plot grinds to a halt and the final impact they have on the picture in total is noticeable, but they represent much less of the make-up of The Deathly Hallows than they do in the book– which is not an unimpressive feat. Director David Yates has yet again successfully translated the best and arguably most important elements of the source material to screen while trimming as much of the fat from it as possible without butchering it.

The Deathly Hallows takes place where the last film left off, with Harry is readying himself for his quest to seek out and destroy the remaining Horcruxes that grant his nemesis, Voldemort, immortality. At this point in the story, Rowling’s world of witches and wizards has taken a significant turn for the worst and no longer possesses the sense of whimsy that once was a cornerstone of the series. Yates, for whom The Deathly Hallows marks his third (and soon to be fourth) time directing in the series, appears to have consciously sapped all of the warmth and light out of the fantasy world we’ve been making repeat visits to for the better part of the last decade; darkness, in all that the word can imply, prevails here, in the color palettes, in the lightning, and in the tone and atmosphere of the narrative. We learn quickly that Voldemort, cunning in the way of many classic villains of myth and legend, has begun his war on wizards and Muggles alike by infiltrating the wizarding government; before the halfway mark, he fully controls the Ministry of Magic through his puppet politicians.

The Harry Potter series has always been political, but maybe never more than in Hallows. Yates seems content to let his audience decide which historical tyrannical and despotic regime Voldemort and his Death Eaters are meant to represent in the grand political metaphor of the story, which is probably wise; attempting to directly identify his villains with real-life figures and connecting them to actual oppressive ideologies would have been much too on the nose and maybe felt preachy. Yates instead lets the actions of the evil wizards, and the literature of their propaganda machine, feel obviously inspired by real life and yet singularly unique to the universe of the films. Through all of this, it’s clear from the word “go” that Yates has taken off the kids gloves– this Potter story is where the world we’ve come to know begins to change for ill. In short: it’s pretty bloody grim.

This means that while the film is perfectly suited for kids who have grown alongside Harry and his friends over the course of the novels (who enjoy a rare benefit in that they grow up as the hero of the novels they read grows up, too, though the time frames may differ), the younger crowd– eight and under– might have more difficulty handling it. I haven’t reversed my stance regarding children being smarter and more capable than most adults give them credit for, but The Deathly Hallows drops the hammer with multiple character deaths and some graphic depictions of violence visited upon our heroes. If nothing else, take caution when taking kids to see this one; between the bloodshed and some choice frightening imagery, it’s up to you to use your best discretion, but there’s no doubt that Yates has made The Deathly Hallows (appropriately) the most grown-up of the films thus far.

Speaking of grown-up, it should be little surprise to anyone to read that maybe the greatest pleasure of the entire movie lies yet again in the acting of the lead triumvirate. I’ve said it before, but the decision to retain continuity in casting each character, especially Harry, Hermione, and Ron, might be the best idea anyone had regarding the films (aside from the unavoidable and regrettable need to recast Richard Harris), and The Deathly Hallows is the big payoff to that bit of wisdom. We’re not watching three actors pretending to be friends who have known each other for the formative years of their lives; it’s actually happening, and more than that we’ve had the fortune to see this relationship flourish for the past nine years as the three stars have grown from pre-teens to young adults. Fittingly, The Deathly Hallows is the film in which these youths are thrust into adulthood by the hand of fate and forced to deal with the threat of Voldemort on their own, resistance fighters rudely awakened to the reality that they have to face the cruelty of their changing world without the assistance of their teachers or parents. When Hermione, blood staining her hands, raises magical defenses around the group’s camp, it’s a wake-up call that these characters are wholly and truly alone; it’s heart-breaking and sobering at the same time, and Hallows is replete with powerful moments like it. (Years from now, mark my words, many of us will look back at the disintegration of Harry’s and Hermione’s friendship with Ron as one of the best-acted moments of the entire series.) Here, each of the leads outdoes themselves spectacularly; I imagine that I’ll say the same when part two rolls around.

Hallows does not come without problems. Notably, and you all knew this was coming, it sags and sags lengthily about halfway through. If the movie is a car, and the plot is the accelerator, then the accelerator is completely spongy. Hallows is widely seen as the most filler-heavy, and Yates an admirable job excising scenes spent in forests alone with the leads while nothing happens while also inserting great character moments to break up the monotony. Unfortunately, he’s not able to overcome the fact that the plot just stops, and nothing– literally, nothing– happens for a significant enough portion of the film’s run time to matter. The filler itself isn’t necessarily the problem– oh it’s a nuisance and a slog, for sure, but the filler’s ultimate impact on the movie is the real villain here. When Hallows arrives at last at the climactic cliffhanger image and the credits roll, there’s no getting around the realization that it got to that point through completely manufactured and inorganic means. It feels like the movie cheated at some point. It’s frustrating, since forward momentum could easily have been kept and the story could have been perpetually moved along, but like the book the picture trips itself up on filler and ends up growing listless to the point where it never feels like it genuinely earns its ending.

Maybe this complaint seems contradictory to the earlier claim that splitting the story into two films makes sense. But the fat doesn’t keep Hallows from being a worthy film, just a great one, and aside from the acting high points it’ll probably be remembered as the set-up for the second chapter. (I will also submit that I’d rather sit through two films and some filler than sit through a very rushed movie that glosses over the essentials of the plot.) All told, though, The Deathly Hallows is a Harry Potter film. You know if it’s up your alley, you don’t need a review to know that you’re going to go see it no matter what, and you’ll probably like it even if it doesn’t cause you to reevaluate your favorite movie out of the series. That’s not the most critical stance to take on a movie, but when discussing a movie riding on the loyalty of a pre-established and passionate fan-base, it might be a sensible one.

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4 thoughts on “Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (pt.1), 2010, dir. David Yates

  1. It was kind of strange for me, seeing this movie — I’ve only read four of the books and seen four of the films (and not in a linear order). If I hadn’t had a friend brief me on the plot, I’d have been completely lost! “HPATDH: Part 1” is NOT a film for first-timers. There’s a ton of name dropping that I’d imagine might be hard even for die-hard fans to keep straight. Still, the movie’s as good as we could expect the buildup to a finale to be (although I’ve been waiting a damn long time to see Hermoine and Ron kiss).

    • Fitz– definitely. I think Yates admirably tried to tackle the sequences in the forest by adding some character moments to them but as fun as those are they don’t smooth out the bumps in the road enough.

      M.– absolutely not for first timers at all, no. Harry Potter isn’t something that one can watch and be caught up on; there are little details dropped here and there that help recall and connect the events of past films but there’s never a direct expository recap of any kind.

  2. I liked the pacing in the film and I think that comes down to the fact it is one book split over two parts. It helps give the characters some breathing room amongst the action. I really enjoyed the film.

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