The penultimate entry in the ‘Harry Potter’ film franchise (based on the first half of J.K. Rowling’s bestselling novel) broke all types of records when it opened back on November 19th. People turned out in droves. The “everyday folk” I’ve talked to have been either warmly enthusiastic or more than a little pissed off about the experience. What’s so odd is that the irate one are the most die-hard fans of the book. This is especially baffling when you consider that the novel was divided into two movies so that they could each be more faithful to the source material. Suck it up, people. ‘Deathly Hallows, Part 1’ is really great.
Now, there are a few reasons why I think the movie is so terrific. Director David Yates (previously a BBC hired gun who was employed and then kept on by Warner Bros. to become the de-facto franchise godfather because he’s cheap and efficient) is kind of a genius. Of course, in explaining my reasons, I will have to talk specifics. So if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book (or both), you might want to head back.
Moving on, then!
The first thing Yates did that was so phenomenal was – over the course of his tenure – to drain the color out of the franchise. Earlier movies (particularly Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Prisoner of Azkaban‘) featured deep, naturalistic colors. Think about Dumbledore’s fez or the ivory-white feathers of the griffin. In recent movies, the tone and accompanying color palette have become bleaker and less colorful. In ‘Deathly Hallows, Part 1’, this is taken to a ridiculous degree. There’s a moment in the film where Hermione is wearing a red dress, and it’s so shocking in part because of the color; you can’t feasibly wrap your mind around a moment when such a joyous color would be employed.
This aspect of the movie is most striking during the prolonged infiltration of the Ministry of Magic, which some critics singled out as either the film’s high point or low point. (How they’d imagine that this is anything but rip-snorting fun is beyond me.) In this scene, you see the magic world truly transformed by the reappearance of the Dark Wizard Voldemort (a snake-like Ralph Fiennes, color drained from his face). The Ministry is now all glassy blacks and cold, hard grays. When the kids use their Polyjuice potion to impersonate some Ministry officials and sit in on a trial, wraith-like Dementors swirl above them, like they’re all trapped in some mystical aquarium.
The other thing that Yates does is to doggedly shoot, edit, and compose the movie almost from Harry’s point of view. The best (and possibly worst) example of this is during the opening chase sequence through real-life London. Death Eaters (followers of the Dark Lord) attack various members of the Order of the Phoenix who are all disguised (again: Polyjuice potion!) to look like the Boy Who Lived. This is relentlessly entertaining, a furiously cut-together action sequence that trumps almost any similar scene in a more straight Hollywood actioner. At the end of the sequence, a key member of the team is lost. Why don’t we see this heroic figure fall? Because Yates has kept with Harry so intensively.
Occasionally, of course, he will clue us in to what the baddies are up to. Yet there always seems to be an emotional design to these decisions.
Other than that, I feel like this movie could be one of the best in the franchise, although I really loved the last one (and Cuaron’s third entry). For me, the pacing feels just right, and the movie ends on an appropriate cliffhanger. Plus, it’s nice to see the kids doing a little bit more acting (and, you know, actually being able to handle that acting). But really, we should just be thankful that the last section of the book is in the more-than-capable hands of David Yates. Mercifully, composer Alexandre Desplat will be back for round two as well!