Monday, December 6, 2010

A Grown up "Harry Potter" for Grown-Up Fans

After viewing the latest "Happy Potter" film, I had the strong urge to warn off any parents of young children who had not yet succumbed to the hype to avoid the film until their tots had gotten a little older and hardier. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I," is light years away in content, tone, and sensibility than the earlier installments of the series. If you remember, the first two Chris Columbus directed "Potter" movies were aimed squarely at children and often criticized for being too glitzy and pandering. No such complaints can be applied to "Deathly Hallows." This is a film made for the same audience, but which assumes that audience has grown up, and is ready for the dark and unpleasant side of the "Harry Potter" universe.

"Deathly Hallows" also assumes that the viewers have read the books or are at least familiar with the earlier "Harry Potter" films. It wastes no time explaining concepts like apparating, the Ministry of Magic, muggles, or Death Eaters. Introductions to new characters are brief, and the established ones are too preoccupied to delivery more than the most absolutely necessary exposition. I admit I had trouble following along at some points, and I want to see the film again to sort out a few plot points. The most important developments, however, are clearly laid out. Teenage Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), and his friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) are on the run from the forces of the evil wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who returned at the end of the last film to take over both the human and wizardly worlds. Initially Harry is taken to safehouse, but he and his young friends slip away in order to look for the horcruxes, magical items that contain pieces of Voldemort's soul and are the key to his defeat.

Like all the previous "Harry Potter" films directed by David Yates, who has been with the series since the fifth film, the cinematography is gorgeous. The protagonists spend a lot of the film camping in the woods. Yates does what he can to compensate for the slower pace of these segments by putting the characters in a succession of striking natural locations. The story takes place during the winter months, and the frozen landscapes impart a cold, stark atmosphere that's different from the murky darkness of the third and fifth films, or the washed-out gloom of the sixth. This is the "Harry Potter" film that feels closest to reality, though every frame seems to sport some evidence of magic at work. Notably, this is the only film that doesn't feature the Hogwarts school with its towering fairy-tale castle, or any scenes of Quidditch, or any of the other school-related elements associated with the other Potter films. There's not a striped scarf in sight. Instead, it feels like the kids have been thrust into the real world at last, a dangerous, unfriendly world where everything they've learned must be put to use and the stakes have become very high.

In "Deathly Hallows" people get hurt left and right, and a few beloved characters die, as one might expect in the latest installment of a series that has gotten progressively darker over the last six films. However, those unfamiliar with the books might be surprised as to how far the creators push the material. Voldemort and his underlings have seized control of the wizard government, and there are obvious parallels to the Third Reich as they begin to subjugate and purge the undesirables in the population. We get glimpses of interrogations, kangaroo courts, an execution, and even a brief torture scene. There's nothing that threatens the film's PG-13 rating, and some good laughs are peppered throughout, but there's enough sobering content that it's hard to call "Deathly Hallows" a kids' movie with a straight face. The sequences with Harry, Hermione, and Ron in the woods are slow and likely to be too plodding for some, but they're also indicative of the series' newfound maturity. This is the first time we've seen the three of them with the cinematic space to seriously hash out some of their long-simmering interpersonal issues with each other, and the series benefits from it.

Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint shoulder the weight of the film without batting an eye. They've proven so dependable over the last few films, it's hard not to take their work for granted. Ditto the adult cast, full of British superstars who gamely show up for a scene here or a line there, sometimes with only the barest acknowledgment. By my count Miranda Richardson as Rita Skeeter has the briefest cameo - she only appears on a moving book cover and in a newspaper clipping. There are a few new faces, the most prominent of which is Rhys Ifans as Luna's father, Xenophilius Lovegood. He gets to act paranoid and chew scenery, which he does very enjoyably. David O'Hara, Sophie Thompson, and Steffan Rhodri also deserve recognition for pulling off a tricky scene involving our heroes infiltrating the Ministry by borrowing the appearances of some low-level minions.

"Deathly Hallows" is not a film for neophytes, but for the full informed "Potter" fan, it's a satisfying penultimate chapter to the "Harry Potter" saga. Contrary to the grumblings of other critics, "Part 1" felt like a whole film for me, albeit a sadder, more deliberative one than the others. It's mostly buildup, and all the big climactic happy ending business will come with "Part 2." However, on its own it's undeniably the most grown-up, challenging, and interesting installment thus far, and easily ranks among the top three "Potter" films along with "Prisoner of Azkaban" and "Order of the Phoenix."

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