Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is not a movie. Sure, it’s two plus hours of a film projected on a screen in a movie theater, but it’s not a complete movie. And I don’t mean that as some sort of swipe at the fact that Warner Bros opted to cut the final Potter book in half but rather to explain to you that Warner Bros took an entire movie and cut it in half. When Deathly Hallows, Part 1 ends you don’t feel like the movie has finished but rather that you’ve hit the intermission; after ten minutes and a piss you’re ready to go back in and watch how all the set-up from the first half pays off.
When I visited the set of the movie last year I asked director David Yates and the producers where they would be putting the end point of Part 1. They said they didn’t know, and I was incredulous. After all, they were making two movies, right? They would have had to structure each of those movies as a movie to make them work on their own. Except they were telling the truth. They didn’t make two movies - they made one big, long movie and cut it right in half. Sort of unceremoniously.
This is the ultimate lack of compromise for the Potter films. In the past the movies have refused to compromise for newbies; if you hadn’t read the books the films would be filled with characters you probably only knew as ‘That guy’ or ‘That monster,’ because the films long ago stopped taking even a moment to bring anyone up to speed. Even as a faithful reader of JK Rowling’s novels I have often found myself confounded by a character who appears without explanation or a situation that is referenced without explication. And now the films have stopped compromising with basic structure, making Deathly Hallows, Part 1 a movie that is basically just one and a half acts of a larger story. Fuck it, they’ve said, we know people are coming back for the second part anyway.
Knowing what’s to come - that Rowling firmly stuck the landing at the end of Deathly Hallows and that Part 2 will be mostly a massive, epic battle - I found it easier to get through Part 1‘s semi-formless build-up, but I do wonder how folks who haven’t read the book will take to the film. I think they’ll mostly be okay because there are major character beats to be found here, especially for Ron and Hermione, but there’s also a lot of aimlessness.
Which comes from the book, and which I think is handled better in the film than in the book. Harry, Ron and Hermione have left Hogwarts and run away to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes - the items in which Voldemort has hidden the shards of his soul. But Rowling doesn’t go the action route with the Horcrux quest and mostly keeps the kids ensconced in a magical tent in the British wilderness; there’s a thematic point to all of this - that the kids, now alone in the adult world, are adrift without guidance - but in the book it becomes almost tedious. The movie manages to cut most of the tedium out of this section, but there’s still no forward momentum. The kids aren’t actually doing anything in the search, and by the end of the film they’ve made little progress in the meta story.
Of course they’ve made huge progress in their personal stories, which is the point, but there’s something sadistic about slowing down the plot in the final moments so that the characters can have little moments of their own. Again, the film does it better - the very un-Potter like cinematography is one of the stars of the film - but there’s still a huge, shambling middle section of the movie; Yates uses cinematic tricks to maintain urgency (although the characters, who spend weeks fucking about, seem to feel none) and that helps.
The movie does make one curious change at this point. The idea of having two films was to allow all the details of the book to make it into the movie, but writer Steve Kloves dropped out a major plot point whose absence I don’t understand. The building blocks of this plot point are there - journalist Rita Skeeter has written a tell-all biography of the late Dumbledore, and the skeletons in his closet are many. In the book this is troubling to Harry, and part of his growing experience in the story is to come to terms with who Dumbledore was, once upon a time, and to understand that people are more complex than his childish views understood. But that’s gone from the film; the Rita Skeeter book is there, as is a trip to Godric’s Hollow, where Dumbledore’s family originates, and a few mentions of Dumbledore’s past, but Harry is unperturbed by any of it.
Which leaves Harry without much of an arc in the film. He gets to visit the graves of his parents, which is a nice note for a series-long arc, but what’s Harry’s story in Deathly Hallows, Part 1? He’s just sort of along for the ride as Ron and Hermione work their shit out. Harry’s got plenty of big stuff coming in Part 2, but it feels weird that the hero is sidelined the way he is here. Of course that’s always been a complaint made against Rowling’s books, that Harry isn’t much of a hero and everything he does comes with the help of someone else. That’s sort of the point of Harry Potter, though, and it gets explicit as Deathly Hallows goes along; Rowling isn’t writing about A hero but rather about how communities band together to be heroic. And she’s writing about communities of all sizes, from a trio of friends to a family to an underground resistance cell. The Chosen One is important, the story says, but so is everybody else.
But on that note I’m surprised the film doesn’t open the scope of the story more. Rowling kept the POV completely with Harry, and in his weeks in the wilderness much was happening in the magical world. This felt like a real opportunity to go wider and bring in some of the story strands that Rowling mentions but doesn’t illustrate, especially as many of those strands feature characters who will be vital in the Battle of Hogwarts. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 already feels nothing like a Harry Potter film, so why not go further and show us what Neville Longbottom and Lupin and the others are up to while Harry is camping out? It might have added to the sense of urgency, and it would help add oomph to these characters when they have their big moments next film.
All of this sounds like nitpicking, but I don’t think it is. Beautifully shot and edited, Deathly Hallows, Part 1 just doesn’t fully work as a movie on its own. And nobody is expecting it to, which is weird. There used to be a time when even your open-ended movie needed to feel like you had told a story of some sort, but Deathly Hallows, Part 1 makes no such effort and scoffs at those who would have it be a self-contained thing with a beginning, middle and end.
I like the ballsiness of that. If you’re going to be one of the biggest franchises in history, act like it. Do your final movie the way you want to do your final movie. And the fact that this is just a very, very long acts one and two of the larger story means that the pacing gets to be interesting; it’s slower paced for sure than the usual Potter film, and that pacing makes the characters feel richer. It turns out that the kids they hired for their looks and precociousness a decade ago can actually do some acting, and they make the heavier character moments work. I still think that Daniel Radcliffe plays Harry like he’s got a huge bolus of stone lodged right up in his colon, but Emma Watson’s Hermione has become delightfully subtle - she is just wonderful in a loaded, electric scene where she dances with Harry in the tent - and somehow Rupert Grint started being amazing. He gets right to the darkness and self-doubt at the center of Ron without hamming it up. I never thought that Grint would be the guy who gave the best performance in a Potter film, but he’s just remarkable in this one.
Although the best performance might actually come from a special effect. Dobby returns in Deathly Hallows, Part 1 in a big way and he’s wonderful. As an effect he’s great, looking very much like a flesh and blood being, but as a character he’s incredible. Toby Jones brings deep, profound heroism to the part (seriously!) as well as beautiful humanity. It’s funny to see how Rowling and the films have salvaged this character; George Lucas should have been so smart with Jar Jar Binks. By the end of Deathly Hallows you’ll have completely changed your tune about Dobby, previously the most irritating element of the Potter mythos.
Other actors get what are essentially walk on roles. I believe Tom Felton has about six words to utter in his role as Draco Malfoy; this puts him slightly ahead of John Hurt and Miranda Richardson, who both have appearances that are the cinematic equivalent of people waving onstage during the end credits of Saturday Night Live (literally, in Richardson’s part). Michael Gambon shows up a screaming ghost and a corpse and nothing else, which is surprising, as I was hoping for flashbacks to Dumbledore’s younger days (see my complaints about the erasure of that entire storyline above).
Of course such has always been the Harry Potter franchise. There’s a brilliance in getting the greatest actors living to play these minor roles; characters that would otherwise disappear into the backgrounds suddenly get a level of gravitas. They feel more like people than elements brought in from the books to make the fans happy. It’s just still funny to see these actors reduced to walk on roles.
I mentioned earlier that this feels least like a Potter film. The fact that the narrative is finally unshackled from Hogwarts is exhilirating; the movie is by turns a heist picture and a fugitive picture, with a couple of almost life-during-wartime elements thrown in. I’ve been a fan of the way the series has slowly gotten the kids out of robes and into modern clothes and that transformation is complete here. There’s a feeling of freedom, and Yates isn’t hemmed in by what we expect a scene in Hogwarts to look like. I’m kind of interested in seeing how he handles returning to the school in the next film, whether he’ll go back to a staid Potter style or if he’ll keep the kinetic new feeling from Part 1. There’s an especially welcome addition to this film - an extended animated sequence telling the history of the titular Deathly Hallows. I wish someone had hit on this technique six films ago, so that some of Rowling’s rich and weird mythology could have been put into the films in a fun way.
There’s certainly a lot to like in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. And I think when it inevitably plays as the first half of The Complete Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows (coming Christmas 2011, I’m sure) this film will feel totally of a piece with the second half. In a couple of years we’ll even forget that they played these two movies separately. Our children will run news stories on their blogs of 2034 telling their young readers that once upon a time you had to wait seven months to watch the second half of The Deathly Hallows. But as a stand alone movie, Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is frustrating. A lot of futzing about without a goal, and once some sort of goal is found the movie ends. I liked it quite a bit, but I hope this experiment in cutting a movie in half, Solomon style, doesn’t catch on.