Movie Review – Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, Part 1

Principal Cast : Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, John Hurt, Rhys Ifans, Jason Isaacs, Bill Nighy, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, David Thewlis, Julie Walters, David Thewlis, Natalia Tena, George Harris, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, Domhnall Gleeson, Clemence Poesy, Guy Henry, Peter Mullan, Carolyn Pickles, David Ryall, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, James & Oliver Phelps, Frances de la Tour, Evanna Lynch, Matthew Lewis, Devon Murray, William Melling, Freddie Stroma, Anna Shaffer, Jessie Cave, Katie Leung, Georgina Leonidis, Louis Cordice, David O’Hara, Afshan Azad, Adrian Rawlins, Geraldine Sommerville, Miranda Richardson, Dave Legeno, Warwick Davis.
Synopsis: Harry, Ron and Hermione are on the run, searching for the mysterious Horcruxes, talismans containing the life essence of Voldemort. With the Ministry of Magic revamped as a virtual dictatorship, enemies everywhere and Harry Potter branded public enemy number one, finding and destroying the Horcruxes is more vital than ever before.


And here I always thought Harry Potter was a kids series. The Deathly Hallows Part 1, the subtitle nomenclature of this instalment in the Harry Potter film series, follows the gradually darkening narrative of the franchise overall as we get set for Part 2’s showdown between title character Potter, and series’ arch-nemesis Voldemort. Over the last decade, we’ve seen Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, develop from young kids to mature adults, as well as the tone of the series moving from light-hearted fantasy to dark, quite scary overtones – it’s perhaps the series one greatest asset, in that as the audience has grown, so to has our acceptance of Harry’s intended plight. Voldemort, lurking in the shadows for much of the series, has finally come to be flesh in the last few instalments, going toe-to-toe with Potter on a number of occasions, although the final battle is yet to take place. We’ve seen Harry overcome some significant obstacles and riddles along the journey, as he transitions from innocent child to full manifestation of The Chosen One, he who will battle Voldemort for the fate of the world. I can’t say I always enjoyed the first few Potter films as much as I’ve enjoyed watching the films become more realistic (if that’s possible in a world of Wizards and Magic) and tangible in tonality, which I think has elevated the Potter franchise from merely a series of mildly interconnected Saturday-afternoon adventures to a fully-fleshed out world of danger and deception. Aside from the worlds fascination with all things Potter, is Part 1 of The Deathly Hallows actually a good film? Will it stand up to the test of time in years to come, once Potter-mania has subsided and we’ve all found a new franchise to follow?

The new stage version of Oliver Twist was coming along nicely…

HP7.1 kicks of pretty much where we left off in The Half-Blood Prince, with Dumbledore dead and the Ministry of Magic in turmoil: a new order seems to be rising, where Muggles and Mudbloods (half breeds of Wizards and Humans) are persecuted for their lineage. Voldemort and his cohorts have learned that Harry Potter has left Privet Drive, and they seek to stop him from locating, recovering and destroying the Horcruxes, mysterious talismans containing the essence of Voldemort himself, and the means by which Potter can defeat the evil Wizard. Harry, Ron and Hermione travel alone through the Wizarding world, trying to locate a Horcrux, as well as the suddenly missing Sword of Godric Gryffindor, which Harry used to destroy a Horcux in The Chamber of Secrets. As they find themselves outcasts from the Wizarding world, due to Harry being persona non gratis around the Ministry, they begin to confront their feelings for each other, dealing with frustration, loyalty and anger as their world disintegrates around them.

Hermione, are you sure this is the way to Rons place?

The main difference between 7.1 and the rest of the preceding Potter films is that in this one, we’re taking a breath. The gargantuan plot twists, spectacular effects set-pieces and epic nature of the franchise give way to a more subdued, character driven work that actually betters many of the previous instalments. Radcliffe, Grint and Watson, as Harry, Ron and Hermione respectively, are given ample room to breathe life into their characters, in a way that feels more organic and less literary than previous directors have allowed. Many have speculated that this has been allowed thanks to the wise heads at Warner’s for allowing JK Rowling’s massive tome to be split into two parts, giving the narrative more space to work, rather than the condensed formats we’ve been given up ’til now. The story slows after a brief action-oriented opening, with plenty of interaction between Harry and Hermione, while Ron seems written out for a fair amount of time after a little tiff with his best bud. I think I’ve enjoyed Watson’s somewhat stagey performances up until now with a mixture of acceptance and annoyance, but here she finally comes into her own as an actress, delivering a performance far beyond that which we witnessed in Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber Of Secrets. Rupert Grint does another great job as the haplessly incompetent Ron Weasley, although this time, his character bounces between smiling buffoon and frowning insolence with confusing intent: it’s hard to see exactly his anger comes from in this film, and I think his part in this film is probably the weakest of the three mains’ this time out. Daniel Radcliffe, as Harry, is solidly dependable, having grown into those round glasses finally. His performance as Harry is suitably angst ridden, suitably stoic in his reluctance to endanger his friends with his impending date with destiny, and suitably emotional. Harry’s journey, while remaining the main focus of the franchise overall, seemed to me to have wavered a little in impact with the most recent films, but now takes its rightful place as the core reason this story exists in the first place.

Getting to grips with the fact it was his last adventure…

Steve Kloves, who’s written all the screenplays for the Potter franchise with the exception of one, delivers the most organic storyline yet. The characters we’ve been introduced to over the previous films all make return appearances throughout (allowing the money-can’t-buy cast of extraordinary talent a few more cameo moments!), and they feel like good friends bowing out with this final, last-blast blowout event. Yet, for all the glorified stunt-casting on the Potter franchise, 7.1 has the least amount of visual whoring of that talent so far; instead of lavishing the camera over the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs, Imelda Staunton and the like, the film seems quite the most perfunctory display we’ve seen so far. They appear, do their bit, and get off – no grandstanding this time. The plot develops slowly here, with Kloves and director David Yates obviously laying the groundwork for the finale in Part 2, and it’s a more relaxed, less rushed Potter film we are given.

If he doesn’t get up in sixty seconds, I’m gonna kick ‘im!

Yates handles the film with aplomb, although I will say there are a couple of points I was a little annoyed with. A lot of things happen off-screen in 7.1, a few people die, magic occurs and major events are glossed over with nuanced effects and a line of dialogue, and yet these events are never seen. I can understand the thinking behind it – Yates obviously wanted to keep the focus on Harry and Co instead of sidetracking to various story points along the way; in this way we get to feel what Harry and his friends do when they do it, as opposed to watching them discover something we already know. This works to a certain degree, but after a while it becomes frustrating, and in the end all I wanted was to see what was happening elsewhere to advance the plot. It’s a minor thing, but something I hope they rectify in the next film. The other thing I found somewhat bothersome was the often obscure camera angles and editing Yates chose to use for the more character-driven moments in the film. His refusal to cut to Harry during a pivotal scene with him and Hermione discussing Gellert Grindelwald, shooting Harry from behind a tree while leaving Hermione seemingly alone in the frame, seemed a little strange. Some of the editing of the action sequences is superb (wand-battle inside a coffee shop!), while others seem hastily cobbled together by a work experience student in the editing bay (attack of the Death Eaters during a wedding), while yet others seem to be over all too quickly (motorbike chase through the sky while battling Voldemort): a film’s style is set down by both the shot selection and the editing, and 7.1 has some lumpy issues with regards to these two facets. However, as I mentioned, it’s all relatively minor.

Here’s my original copy of The Philosopher’s Stone for you Emma. Hope you enjoy it!

On the positive side, the look of the film itself is superb. Yates chose to use hand-held cameras a large amount of the time, and this adds a sense of urgency and frazzled nerves to the feel of proceedings. A major argument between Ron and Harry has the look and feel of a Paul Greengrass film, which may annoy some, but I think actually heightens the raw, unbalanced tension within the scene. Alternatively, Yates also knows when to stick with the more traditional camera shots, such as the Ministry of Magic’s steadicam and dolly-track footage, all of which looks immaculate. The colour seems to be sucked from this film most of the time, a depressing palate complementing the narratively darker tones in the story. Yates knows how to shoot in widescreen, and handles the more intimate moments of the film with a generally sweet eye (excepting the aforementioned momentary lapses), filling the frame with plenty of eye-candy or paring aside the flourishes in equal measure. Yates “gets” the Potter world, and he seems right at home amongst the wands and magic fireballs.

Harry held on for dear life, as his huge hairy friend tried to beat the peak hour rush!

If there’s one part of the film that really made me sit up and take notice, it’s a key animated segment in the later third in which Hermione recounts the story of the origin of the titular Deathly Hallows. Told with stunning animation by Framestore, under the direction of Ben Ben Hibon, The Tale Of The Three Brothers is a short film inserted into Deathly Hallows that sets up the mythology of the icons in a way that is truly remarkable. Of all the moments in Deathly Hallows Part 1, this moment made the film. The animation is superb, the voice-over by Hermione is suitably fairy-tale-esque, and the backstory itself is elegantly evocative.

Harry makes a move…

I’ve always had an issue with the fact that John Williams couldn’t be brought back to complete his amazing score work on these films; other composers have taken his signature themes and run with them throughout the franchise, and incumbent musical substitute Alexandre Desplat has delivered a score worthy of the master himself. Desplat brings an eerie, screeching, off-kilter score to the film, a perfect encapsulation of the fragile, fragmented emotions of the three leads, using what appears to be rusty metal for instruments. It’s unexpected, and surprisingly effective. The moments of anger and resentment building in our characters is mirrored with a strange scraping style of orchestration, and to be honest, I’m not sure if it’s score or sound effect, but whichever it is, it works. Makes the film feel more angry, more palpable. Don’t get me wrong, Desplat’s more traditional orchestration, utilizing John Williams’ themes, are full blooded and textural, continuing the musical themes began in Philosopher’s Stone, but I’m glad to see a composer unafraid to take chances with an established franchise.

Are you kidding me? There’s two midgets on my table!

The Deathly Hallows Part 1 definitely feels like the opening stanza in an epic conclusion, and while I guess I’d normally knock a star or two off in light of the “unfinished business” feeling you get at the end, in this instance I’m prepared to overlook it because the bulk of the film is pretty damn good. The focus on characters, instead of grandiose visual effects, really does set up the emotional punches to come in Part 2, and I think it’s a canny move by David Yates to give over a bulk of the films run-time to simple conversations and character development. I’d hesitate to say this film is the best of the bunch (I think Cuaron’s Prisoner Of Azkaban is the most complete work of the series so far) but it does something the rest of them haven’t been willing to do to this point: take us somewhere new. It’s okay to show us plenty of cool effects and magic and stuff, but without the characters’ emotional investment, or ours, the film would be a hollow affair with naught to say. As it stands, Deathly Hallows is the start of a wonderful conclusion to this series, and I, for one, can’t wait to see how it all wraps up.

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7 thoughts on “Movie Review – Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, Part 1

  1. I rewatched this before going to see Part 2 again last Sunday and I was quite blown away by how much more I enjoyed this movie. Technically, it was a really well made film and I loved that it was more contemplative than the previous films. The performance are the strongest to date and Emma Watson nearly steals the movie which was a bit astonishing because she overacted so much in the first 4 or 5 movies. Nice review Rodney!

    1. Would it be fair to say that Deathly Hallows 1 & 2 marks Emma Watson's best performances in the entire franchise? I think her acting in these two films is the best it's ever been…

  2. Excellent review as always Rodney. I agree with you on your point about the animated sequences telling the story of the three brothers. It was a wonderful way to visually bring that bit of exposition to life. I can also see your point about the film being a little too dark…perhaps the series peaked in its darker overtones around films 3,4,5 and shouldn't have got any darker.

  3. Rod — your usual detailed coverage, solid points especially about Yates and the scene details. I have answers, probably not "the" answers but reasons for what might have happened (or in this case gone wrong). I'll bet it was style choices but it could have been issues with performance, the shots themselves, or perhaps a reworking of the scene away from what was shot and consequently there just weren't enough shots in the can in the editing room. Also the bit about Framestore was right on. They do amazing work – did you see The Golden Compass? I suppose I could search your site. Also, they've done some smashing ad work (see Johnny Walker).

    Solid review with some obvious fan-based notes and observations. I might get around to a review but I'd be hard pressed to cover it as well. cheers-

    1. Thanks Rory. I wrote this review about a month ago (back in early June), and re-watched the film a few days ago in preparation for seeing Part 2 – I still think some of the shot selection was a little… weird, and Yates has a few more head-scratchers in Part 2 as well, even if they're not as obvious. I await your dissertation on Part 2 in due course! I'd like to think his choice of shots was related more to an artistic decision, rather than a "this is all we shot" excuse, especially for a film with so much money behind it, you'd have thought they'd make sure everything was covered off before moving on! I don't necessarily agree with his artistic choice in some regards, but that's the beauty of film, I guess!

      Yeah, I watched Golden Compass in '08 on a plane between Singapore and London, and thought that while the film itself (the story, mainly) was pretty crap, the visual effects were stunning. For the record, here's my early thoughts on it:

      Thanks for playing!

  4. I had the feeling this worked well enough as a set up for Part 2, but more as a necessary evil than a truly good movie on its own. 7.2 was much more fun, which is what Harry started off as, anyway. Good, Harry fun.

    1. You'll have to wait for my 7.2 review (it's up on Thursday) but I will argue that neither film in the Deathly Hallows story was "fun" as such… perhaps a little too dark to be considered in the same vein as, say, The Philosopher's Stone, which was a lot more innocent and light…. Still, watching Hogwarts get torn a new one wasn't too bad, I guess…. But I see your point. 7.1 did seem a neccessary evil to get all the players into their positions both geographically and emotionally. I'm keen to get both films on disc and watch them consecutively again, to see if the story flows a lot better than I recall.

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