Note: My first paragraph is sure to turn off those with short attention spans and unmitigated love for all things Potter. I challenge you, however, to keep reading. After all, you can’t just guess how it’s going to turn out, now can you?
I’ve never been a fan of the Harry Potter films. To me, the first four or so were indistinguishable from one another; one Scooby Doo plot after another, with the installment villain revealed to be either the person you least suspected, or the person most suspected, but rarely someone you could guess by actually following the story. That said, the characters and story have grown along with the age of the actors. It was both clever marketing and planning to spread the films out over nearly a decade so that we could watch the lead actors—Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint—grow at the chronological pace of each chapter in the unfolding saga.
We catch up with Harry, Hermione and Ron going into underground exile just after Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) dies at the hands of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) in the previous installment. Opening the first of two parts comprising the final chapter of the story, Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy) exclaims heavily that dark times are upon the people—muggles and squibs alike. A sinister plot is unfolding, with many dark wizards converging under Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) to overthrow the Ministry.
What strikes me is how much the series has matured from the lighthearted vision under Chris Columbus’ direction in the first two installments. As the series became progressively darker in tone, taking on more adult themes, the producers tapped directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell, and most recently the notable BBC TV series director David Yates, to tackle the evolving narrative.
The decades-long run of the Star Trek franchise gave us our first glimpse of what actors could pull off if given years to settle into their characters. Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner and the late DeForest Kelley became more knowledgeable about their characters’ idiosyncrasies than any of the writers. By their last film installment, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the trinity went out in top form as dedicated friends who would sacrifice everything for one another.
Here, the actors finally seem completely comfortable in their roles. When complications arise in the budding relationship between Ron and Hermione, the squints and glares given to Mr. Grint by Ms. Watson are not misplaced or overused. In contrast with the abysmal Twilight saga—one following the trades and interviews gets the distinct impression that it’s little more than a paycheck for Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart—Mr. Radcliffe, Mr. Grint and Ms. Watson seem quite happy to be carrying on in J.K. Rowling’s magical adventure.
Their current objective is to destroy several horcruxes—relics, each of which contain a portion of Voldemort’s soul. These details are less and less interesting with each passing episode, whereby much expositionary dialogue is needed to explain each symbol or object’s relevance to the plot. Their search for the horcruxes leads to the eccentric wizard Xenophilius Lovegood (Rhys Ifans, as yet another character whose name satirizes the English tradition of obvious metaphorical surnames) who relates to them the rather ominous story of three knights, who collectively attempted to cheat death. The artifacts associated with this legend, which I won’t reveal, bear a significance that Harry and his friends have yet to fully discover. The minutiae gives way here to a fascinatingly grim animation accompanying Hermione’s narration of the tale.
The film’s bleak pallor is achieved in large part by editor Hank Corwin, who began his career as an editor for Oliver Stone, and cinematographer Eduardo Serra. Mr. Serra’s previous credits include Blood Diamond and Unbreakable which, while the first of many M. Night Shyamalan failures, utilized long takes and grey-green hues to establish the isolation felt by the principal characters. Here, too, our three heroes feel very alone, vulnerable and, for the first time I have felt, genuinely in peril. As the conclusion of the story approaches, those of us who haven’t read the books cannot be as certain who will survive.
The dynamic score by Alexandre Desplat (The Ghost Writer, Syriana, Birth, The Painted Veil) finally lends tremendous weight to the imagery. Nuanced and supplemental, the score thankfully relies little on incidental cues (read: atonal bombast), typical of John Williams’ or Howard Shore’s work. Mr. Desplat’s upcoming projects include Terrence Malick’s long-awaited The Tree of Life. He has earned a place among a handful of contemporary film composers, including Vangelis, who possess each a distinctive, original voice.
While at 146 minutes the film does feel longer than necessary (astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson quipped of the film’s relativistic effects, “Seventy-five minutes of content time-dilates into a 2.5 hour film.”), it still manages to entertain. I saw the film on AMC Theatre’s new IMAX®—though technically not IMAX. This new cineplex IMAX is a 2k digital projection on a normal screen scooted closer to the audience, rather than the horizontal 65mm projection on an 80 foot screen we remember from childhood trips to the science museum or zoo. However, the real innovation is a 12,000-watt sound system and acoustic paneling that, as much as it boasts, does give people in the rear seats much better surround sound imaging than a standard theater auditorium. In that regard, the experience is more immersive, though it remains debatable as to whether or not it’s worth the extra $5.
Nevertheless, all of the elements of scene and sound combine to reveal a maturity to the Potter franchise that surprises, scares and entertains in all the ways the lifeless Twilight films failed to accomplish.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 146 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality. • Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
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