Sunday, December 12, 2010

Deathly Chill

The penultimate Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010, directed by David Yates), is without exception the most melancholy film in the series. Given the way the narrative is has been split, and given that the center of the source novel--to which, this film is slavishly faithful--is the dark heart of the Harry Potter series as a whole, this is to be expected. What IS surprising, though, is just how much like a horror movie this plays. Oh, the Potter movies have dabbled in horror before (particularly near the end of the fourth movie), but this one combines both the events that drive the plot with image and archetype in a way that is new to the series. I'm thinking of two scenes in particular:

Harry and Hermione visit the site of the Potter family's fatal encounter with Lord Voldermort, only to meet Bathilda Bagshot, a magical historian with deep knowledge of the life of Dumbledore. This is, of course, of great interest to Harry, given that Dumbledore left him no concrete instructions and only vague hints as to what would be required of him. So he follows her back to her home. The movie adds a subtle--very subtle--insect buzz when we are introduced to Bagshot, and the movie makes good on the promise. When she deteriorates and returns to the form of Voldermort's snake, as Hermione discovers the source of the fly buzzes, the movie has crossed firmly into horror.

But it doesn't stop there.

Late in the movie, our young heroes are caught by a group of "snatchers," who take them to the mansion of Lucius Malfoy, where Voldermort's second in command, Bellatrix Lestrange imprisons Ron and Harry and proceeds to torture Hermione for information. While we're not shown what happens in explicit detail, the way this is filmed recalls certain "torture porn" horror movies. It's surprisingly effective and surprisingly intense given the traditional audience for the Potter movies. But then, that audience has grown up with Harry, so perhaps it's not as much of a trauma.

In any event, the filmmakers have given this particular adaptation five hours to unfold, and in doing so, have released screenwriter Steven Kloves from trying to pick and choose from elements of the book in order to distill its plot. This film pretty much includes everything. It kind of has to include everything, because huge chunks of the preceding movies really do need some kind of explication. Fortunately, Rowling and her interpreters have provided that explication. Also, by decompressing the narrative, one really gets a sense of time passing for the first time since the third movie. The later Potter movies have felt like they rush from plot point to plot point without time for anything else, so it's a welcome change, even if director David Yates doesn't let his characters even crack a smile. Yates certainly does his level best to evoke gloom with this movie, which does dismal the way only the British do dismal. It's a particularly joyless movie, actually.

It's probably my second favorite of the movies, for all of that.

As I say, this a melancholy film, and it strikes that tone from the outset, as it details childhood's end for all three of our young heroes. Harry watches as the Dursleys pack up and leave his childhood home--unhappy as it may have been, it was a stable safe haven for him. He looks longingly at the closet under the stairs where he lived as a boy. Ron gazes out at the horizon as his mother and sister prepare for his brother's wedding. He knows that his safe haven will be coming to an end, too. And Hermione reluctantly wipes all trace of herself from the lives of her muggle parents. This sequence does not portend a joyous carnival of wonders, nor does the film deliver such a thing. David Yates is a depressingly literal director, but in the case of this particular story, letting the story carry the weight of the world may actually be a wise move.

The main flaw in the movie, apart from the incomplete nature of the story, is that it contains a lot of non-action. It takes this fault from the book. It makes the best of it, and it does give our trio of young actors the chance to show just how good they've become by absenting them from the legion of British worthies in the cast, but it brings things to a screeching halt. Also, one misses Michael Gambon, and Alan Rickman, who both get what amounts to cameo roles, while things aren't much better for Robbie Coltrane, Brendan Gleeson, and David Thewlis. When things do pick up at the end, the movie is commandeered by Helena Bonham-Carter's off the hook performance as Bellatrix Lestrange. Jason Isaacs is in this part of the movie, too, but he gives a very different account of Lucius Malfoy than the one from previous movies. The arc of his character (and of the Malfoys in general) is not one for a barnstormer, and Isaacs dials it back appropriately. Unfortunately, this leaves a void that Bonham-Carter is more than happy to fill.

In spite of this, it's up to Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint to hold the screen for almost all of the movie, and they do an admirable job. They've all become really fine actors. Never mind the series' various directors, the biggest influence on this movie is the team that cast Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone all those years ago. I mean, it's one thing to populate a movie with amazing actors who are known to be amazing actors. It's quite another to see amazing actors in a trio of raw ten year-old kids (they performed a similar feat with Tom Felton and Bonnie Wright, as well). Daniel Radcliffe in particular has an amazing future ahead of him after Potter. He really has become a fine actor and a totally adorable man. In some ways, this movie is his coming-out party. It bodes well for the second half. It doesn't hurt that J. K. Rowling managed to close the series with the best of the books. Good breeding will show eventually.

David Yates does take one interesting chance with this movie. Nestled into the second half of the movie is the story of the Deathly Hallows, three objects that, when combined, provide the one who has them with ultimate power over life and death. The story of the Deathly Hallows is contained within a storybook that Dumbledore leaves to Hermione, and when the time comes to relate the story, the movie reverts to animation. The animated portion of the movie is a striking example of CGI disguised as bunraku puppet theater and cut-out animation a la Lotte Reiniger. Like the rest of the movie, it's a melancholy fairy tale, but it's such an unexpected shift in idiom that it's a delightful surprise. This is the seventh movie in the series, and that it is still capable of surprising the audience is a testament to how rich a creation the Harry Potter movies have turned out to be. I took Roger Ebert to task for declaring the first of these movies to be an instant classic. At the time it seemed like a ridiculous and completely unreflected opinion. But he was right and I was wrong. These movies are built to last.

No comments: