Arts and Culture

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One'

Our young heroes are on their own, feeling their way through a dark and unfocused storyline.

By Steve Burgess 19 Nov 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a muggle who writes about film and culture every other Friday for The Tyee.

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Harry, Ron and Hermione: Why Ron?

This week's big story: an engagement with British royalty. Long awaited, too. Harry Potter 7, a.k.a Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One, hits theatres today. William and Kate, take a helpful tip from the Potter party: no Death Eaters at the reception. Spoils the mood.

And the mood in Potterville these days is mighty grim. A darkening trend has crept over the story as it has progressed. But Deathly Hallows Part One, the penultimate film in the series based on J.K. Rowling's books, is the most sombre yet. The comforting confines of Hogwarts and the reassuring presence of Dumbledore are gone. Our heroes Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) are in the big, bad world alone, feeling their way in the dark. This time around they spend a remarkable amount of screen time simply being lost and hopeless.

Sounds bleak, don't it? But that mood highlights one of the series' strengths. The Potter films have embraced emotional complexity to a degree that is admirable for a blockbuster film serial. Rowling and the filmmakers have used the advantages of a captive audience wisely -- they've stretched things beyond the standard heroic quest. This time around things get truly grown up thanks to the the long-dormant issue of sexual jealousy. Evil forces torment Ron Weasley with the question many fans have surely pondered: why would the lovely Hermione pick him over Harry, a.k.a. Mr. Chosen-One-on-Campus?

The plot widens

Deathly Hallows Part One contains an odd but poetic scene -- a brief, disconnected interlude in which Harry cheers his depressed friend Hermione by engaging her in an impromptu dance. It's a quiet tribute to male-female friendship, and another demonstration of what you can do with characters the audience has come to know over a lengthy dramatic journey. A later animated sequence (directed by Ben Hibon) also stands out as evidence that the Potter franchise can draw on the finest talents in the industry.

And yet with all that, Deathly Hallows Part One is the most frustrating Potter movie since number two, the forgettable Chamber of Secrets. Most of the reasons have to do with plotting. Finishing a long saga is always the trickiest part, and while this film is not the end, it is the beginning of the end. On the evidence of number seven there's reason to be concerned about the forthcoming finale of this cinematic octet.

The Potter saga has inevitably shown parallels with other fantasy epics. This installment has Lord of the Rings on it like perfume in a cramped elevator. Just as Frodo and Sam carried the insidious ring, the trio of young wizards must carry a piece of jewelry that poisons the minds of its handlers. The occasional appearance of a Gollum-like creature (named Creature) doesn't help either.

Not having read the books, I have to assume that plot issues can be laid directly at the feet of Rowling. And in this film the plotting is beginning to seem slapdash. Earlier in the series new developments just meant more threads, more layers of complexity. But when new things keep coming in the next-to-last film of the series it starts to look like desperation. Things we've never heard of before suddenly become key plot points. At this point in the story, shouldn't the major elements already be in place?

One to go

Deathly Hallows Part One places a formerly minor character in a key role, one that is expected to provide the movie's emotional payoff. It doesn't work. More than that, it feels like a major failure of nerve. Rowling, or the filmmakers, needed to step up to the plate and involve a central character in that dramatic development, just as they did last time around with Dumbledore.

Failures of nerve seem to be the rule here. Too often the sense of foreboding and menace lovingly crafted by director David Yates and his team goes off like a damp squib thanks to the insipid source material. There's a certain lack of evil prowess on display. Terrifying is as terrifying does.

All may still be well. The Potter series has frequently offered proof that Hollywood (British division) can occasionally get things right. It's been a theatrical mini-series unlike any before it. Perhaps Deathly Hallows Part Two will wrap things up with a suitable burst of movie magic. Let's hope there's a wizard app for that.  [Tyee]

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