Well, we’re a long way from the cupboard under the stairs now, and just as far from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It’s impossible at this point to approach the Harry Potter juggernaut with anything approaching objectivity. Unfamiliarity with the previous six excursions is a liability for both the viewer and the filmmakers. With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, thrice-chosen director David Yates and stalwart screenwriter Steve Kloves have thrown caution to the wind and decided that if you haven’t been keeping up at this point, you don’t deserve to know what’s going on.
Unfortunately, Kloves seems to have taken that same attitude with abjurers of the books. Splitting the seemingly dense final tome into two parts has apparently given him license to bloat the beast, cramming as much from the book as possible into what will become a five-hour denouement. Much of the blame must go to author J.K. Rowling who, after six Hogwarts-centric stories, decided at the eleventh-hour (or at least the seventh hour) to toss a well-established convention in the waste basket and send our three young students out into the world on a Lord of the Rings-style quest for pieces of archfiend Voldemort’s soul, which can be conveniently hidden anywhere in any item. This narrows our heroes’ quest to nothing less than everything in the entire world. To maintain such a narrow focus over six novels and then suddenly explode the scope of the narrative is the grossest form of inconsistency. It would be akin to Alexander Godunov rising from his body bag at the coda of Die Hard only to have Bruce Willis suddenly pursue him on a fifteen-minute car chase all over the city.
It’s also a little late in the game to introduce so many new characters, many of whom have marginal relevance. Names are thrown about like parade ticker-tape (Charity Burbage, Elphias Doge, Mundungus Fletcher, Gregorovitch, etc.), some of whom are either immediately dispatched or viewed in fragmented flashback. A new member of the impecunious Weasley family, Bill, briefly materializes to marry a rather secondary character from the Goblet of Fire. Meanwhile Percy, who went from a speaking role in the first two films to background in the Order of the Phoenix, is nowhere to be seen, and other characters that have become familiar to fans for the better part of a decade are ignored, murdered, immediately forgotten, or all three. One such character (and I must give SPOILER warnings here) meets his demise entirely offscreen while the most moving death scene in the entire series is reserved for a character who is entirely a special effect. If I were Gary Oldman or Michael Gambon, I would feel horribly cheated.
With so much cramming into the first part of a single film you’d think we’d think get some momentum going on the story. Alas, very little progress is made. It could easily have been titled Harry Potter and the Random Coincidences. It seems Mr. Yates and Mr. Kloves have learned nothing from the winning achievement that was Order of the Phoenix; trimming the fat, properly narrowing the focus and bringing the series back from the precipice to which Mike Newell marched it in Goblet of Fire. With the end in sight, Yates has marched the series right back. Here we see how much worse the fourth film could have been if, as it was hoped at the time, it had been split in two, as well: a meaningless mess.
Mr. Yates is on his third cinematographer now. While the replacement of Slawomir Idziak with Bruno Delbonnel was indeed an aesthetic improvement in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, series newcomer Eduardo Serra brings voguish, shaky-cam hackery to the proceedings, giving editor Mark Day very little with which to work. It’s easily the laziest and coarsest photography of the entire series, which is especially disconcerting considering we’re stuck with it to the bitter end.
Stuart Craig, who has designed every single Potter film, has done a fairly good job of giving each one a unique style. Here he opts for no style at all, which seems to be in keeping with the overall tone of the film. Even the brilliant Alexandre Desplat, though he starts off well enough, delivers a rather flat, rote score, nothing at all like the dreamy charm of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or the low-key intensity of Syriana. I felt the absence of Nicholas Hooper’s marvelous music from the previous two films.
The only glue holding the film together is the exquisite camaraderie between the three main performers, who by now display a comfortable ease with their characters. Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger, who was dangerously close to becoming a harping hag in the middle of the series, now serves as the trio’s keystone. She’s given a particularly moving, meaningful and mature moment at the beginning of the film, delivering a rather unique goodbye to her parents. Of the three, her character has matured the most, followed closely by Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry. No one else is really given enough screen time to shine. Alan Rickman’s Snape, though he has the least amount of screen time as any of the regulars, commands every moment he’s given.
At the end of it all, it will likely be a film that must be judged in its entirety. Even with that, however, it will be a final film who’s first half is fragmented and unfocused, leaving little for the second half to do but pick up the pieces and hope it can be properly repaired.
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