19 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Daniel Radcliffe is shown in a scene from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1."
So here we are, nine years after the first film, 13 years after the publication of J.K. Rowling's first novel. The boy wizard Harry Potter and the actor who portrays him, Daniel Radcliffe is a boy no longer. Neither are his companions, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), the children we first met. The wise and kindly Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), teacher, adviser, friend and protector, is no more. Hogwarts, the school that had been the primary setting to this point, is virtually absent, replaced by the streets of London, the forests of the English countryside.

As film No. 7 in the saga, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1," opens and as it progresses, the bad guys, led by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), have won and continue winning, claiming both Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic. They aim to subjugate not just the wizarding world but the world of Muggles, as well.

But hope, small though it may be, remains, as Harry, the "chosen one" whose fate is tied to Voldemort's, still lives, and he, Ron and Hermione set out on the task Dumbledore left to them—finding and destroying the remaining Horcruxes, the objects in which Voldemort placed pieces of his soul to attain his immortality. Two already have been eliminated, but here's the problem: not only do Harry and company not know where the remaining Horcruxes are hidden, they don't even know what they are.

As you might have guessed—or already know, if you have read the books—"Deathly Hallows: Part 1" is unlike any of the preceding "Potter" films. Most of what is familiar is gone, the childlike sense of wonder and adventure replaced by a dark, dark tone that not even a handful of lighter moments can relieve. It is a movie full of wizards, elves, goblins, flying broomsticks and other things magical, fantastic and horrible, yet it feels gritty, even real.

Splitting the final book into two films, which appeared to be a money-grubbing move on the surface, proves to be a genius creative decision, allowing director David Yates (who also helmed "Order of the Phoenix" and "Half-Blood Prince") and screenwriter Steve Kloves (onboard for the entire series minus "Order of the Phoenix") to focus on the emotional content instead of merely moving from plot point to plot point. They can do this because Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have grown into their roles so well.

More than ever, the screen franchise rests on Radcliffe's shoulders. In the early films, as a child with little acting experience (certainly nothing of this magnitude), he struggled mightily, but here he continues to show the confidence and maturity as an actor that fully emerged for the first time in last year's "Half-Blood Prince." Like the book, the movie stays with Harry almost exclusively, and it is primarily through Radcliffe that we feel the weight of the dire circumstances.

Grint continues his role as the unsung hero of the central trio, his expert comic timing put to good use and now paired with some hefty dramatic chops. When Ron gets serious, you know things are bad.

But if I had to put money on which of the three will become the biggest star post-"Potter," I'd bet on Watson, whose Hermione, more than anyone else, gives the series its heart. With her love for Harry and romantic feelings for Ron—shown primarily through her unending exasperation with him—along with her loyalty, smarts and pragmatism, Hermione is the glue that holds the trio together, a friend we all wish we could have. Watson functions similarly within the ensemble; while Radcliffe broods and Grint swings from comic relief to temper tantrum, there she is, giving the least showy performance, acting with subtlety, saying as much without words as she does when she speaks and somehow still commanding our attention.

Though it is mostly set-up for "Part 2," coming to theaters July 15, 2011, "Deathly Hallows: Part 1" is a gripping 145 minutes. No extraneous subplots, no superfluous characters allowed. Even the death of a beloved character is kept off-screen (as it is in the book) and someone as seemingly insignificant as the elf Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones) serves a crucial purpose.

When "Half-Blood Prince" was released last year, it easily became the best film in the series. It's hard to say where "Deathly Hallows: Part 1" will land because, obviously, it's only half a movie. But my gut tells me it is as good as the movie that preceded it, if not better.

By the way, this is the "boring" part of the book. Now it's time to stick the landing. See you in July.

Greg's Grade: A

(Rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality. 145 minutes.)

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