Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski would pick the Cloak of Invisibility among these Hallows...for top-secret make-outs!
"We're alone."—Hermione Granger
Hermione utters the above line in a specific context (once she, Harry, and Ron have determined that a house they've entered contains no hidden enemies), but it also articulates the theme of this penultimate Potter film: our heroes are alone. They have lost the comforting surroundings at Hogwarts, their powerful mentor Dumbledore, and the host of other magical allies they have relied on in years past. Facing an impossibly powerful Voldemort—who is quickly turning the wizarding world into a terrifying Fourth Reich—they struggle to figure out how to defeat him and struggle, too, against internal divisions that threaten to shatter their longstanding friendship.
Far more than a simple lead-in to the sure-to-be-epic finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 breaks new ground for its film series both emotionally and atmospherically.
Facts of the Case
If you've followed neither the Harry Potter books nor movies up to this point, you might as well march your butt back to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and start from the beginning: no good will come of jumping in at this complicated point. For those who've done their homework, this installment picks up after the tragic death of Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, Gosford Park), whose absence haunts Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, December Boys) as he questions the bond he thought they had. Rather than returning to school, Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson, The Tale of Despereaux), and Ron (Rupert Grint, Wild Target) prepare to leave homes and loved ones behind and strike out on a desperate and lonely quest. They must find the evil Lord Voldemort's (Ralph Fiennes, The English Patient) Horcruxes—objects enchanted to preserve portions of his soul—and destroy them in order to make him mortal once again. Then all they'll have to do is kill him!
Spoiler alert! I'll be discussing Deathly Hallows, Part 1 in its entirety (but won't give away details for Part 2).
Long, long ago, when the previous installment of this series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince hit theaters, there was some griping among fans that the filmmakers made some too-easy choices that left out richer and more challenging parts of the book. They devoted much screen time to the fluffy romances bubbling among the Hogwarts teens, but left out historical scenes about Voldemort's childhood and the exploration of his character psychology. I'm on the fence about that choice in Half-Blood Prince, but was dismayed to hear the opposite sort of griping this time around from some (though most fans seemed quite pleased with the movie): "Deathly Hallows, Part 1 kept all the boring parts in the tent! They just sit around doing nothing for most of the movie!" To me, the filmmakers' bold choice to leave those tent scenes running long in a series that is perpetually pressed for time made Deathly Hallows, Part 1 the gripping success that it is. Unlike the final film, which is sure to be action-packed, this story is balanced between a flurry of panicky violence at the beginning followed by long stretches of hopeless waiting and inaction in the tent. In this way, the film—sprinkled with visual and verbal references to the twentieth century's World Wars—endeavors to bring to Harry Potter the hard truths of all great war stories, including the feelings of powerlessness, uncertainty, and even boredom that are more common in war than moments of violence and terror. Reminding me of the gutsy, classic episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "The Body," this installment of Harry Potter breaks from the smooth efficacy of action-based heroism that dominates the rest of the series, giving our protagonists a crisis they can't just dive into with wands blazing. Harry is ready to finish this fight, eager to get out there and smash some Dark Lord soul pieces, but since he has no idea where or what they are he just has to sit around—worse, he just has to keep running from one lonely place to the next to avoid capture. Even Hermione, who is usually supplied with all the information she needs to puzzle out a brilliant strategy, is lost—unable to look up much of anything useful in her trusty books.
All this is to say: yes, the tent scenes are slow and frustrating. Why? Because this mission is slow and frustrating. As Harry barks at Ron, "I thought you knew what you signed up for…Did you think we were going to be staying in a five-star hotel, finding a Horcrux every other day? Did you think you'd be back with your Mum by Christmas?"
I also appreciated the tent scenes because they provided some expansive stretches of time to simply stay with characters we've grown so attached to and who will be retiring from the silver screen with this summer's final installment. Thankfully the least sparkling of the lot, Ron, ducks out midway through to give Harry and Hermione oodles of attention from the camera. Playing up the undercurrents of more-than-friendship from Rowling's book (which all fizzle as soon as Harry says that Hermione is "like a sister" to him), the filmmakers take advantage of the natural bond that seems to exist between Radcliffe and Watson—who, after all, have grown up together on these sets. Though nowhere in Rowling's book, the scene in which Harry tries to cheer Hermione with a little dancing session in their isolated tent is lovely, infusing their relationship with a smidge of romantic tension but mostly just showing how deeply these two care for each other as friends.
Hermione, who is far and away my favorite Harry Potter character, finally gets the full attention she deserves in Deathly Hallows, Part 1, becoming every bit as much of a hero as Harry himself. Proving why she was sorted into Gryffindor rather than Ravenclaw, despite her unrivaled smarts, she exhibits bravery of every variety in this story. She hurls jinxes at fearsome Death Eaters in the coffee shop, plays field medic with the badly bleeding Ron, and endures actual torture in Malfoy Manor. Watson is especially heartrending in scenes of emotional bravery: choosing to stay with Harry in the woods despite her love for Ron because the cause is more important than her feelings (and because he's being a prat), or casting Obliviate on her own parents. As she utters the spell that will erase her from their memories and we see her image disappear from family pictures, we realize just how much Hermione is sacrificing.
Her sadness hits home later, in a great moment of vulnerability from Watson, when she apparates herself and Harry to the Forest of Dean, a place her parents took her when she was young. Reflecting that they wouldn't remember it or her if they came here now, Hermione suggests wearily and half-seriously that the two should just stay there and "grow old." Luckily, the writer of this adaptation, Steve Kloves, gives Hermione some moments of levity, too, in this dark story. The best is her reaction to Harry's outburst that she's "brilliant" when she figures out how to destroy a Horcrux. In a flurry of euphoria at this discovery mingled with an irrepressible perfectionism, Hermione blurts out, grinning, "Actually, I'm highly logical, which allows me to look past extraneous detail and perceive clearly that which others overlook."
Other breaks from the darkness include the delightful wackiness of the seven Harrys, when a bunch of his friends take Polyjuice Potion to mimic his appearance, disguising which is the real Harry during a dangerous journey. This is just one of several in Deathly Hallows that Polyjuice makes an appearance, challenging actors from the films to imitate each other. The bloke who plays Ron-as-Cattermole (Steffan Rhodri) when the trio disguise themselves to break into the ministry, for example, mimics Grint's bulgy-eyed expressions of shock and dismay perfectly. And who can resist a laugh when the injured George, who's had his ear blown off by Death Eaters, sticks a toothbrush in the bandaged wound and stares, straight-faced, at a just-caught-kissing Harry and Ginny?
It's hard to remember those lighter moments, though, in the film's tearjerker conclusion. Dobby the elf (who could easily have become the Potter franchise's Jar Jar Binks) dies a heroic and moving death, having just saved our captured heroes from the clutches of Death Eaters in the dungeon of Malfoy Manor. Everything about the scene—the frailty of Dobby's tiny body, the grains of sand that cling to him and Harry as the latter cradles him in his arms, the way Luna touches him to close his eyes after death—tries to make us forget that the little guy isn't human and isn't even there in the form we see, being a mostly digital creation. It works, and we care about his death in "a beautiful place…with friends" just as much as we would if it were one of Harry's human allies who had died.
Dobby is killed by the mad and sadistic Bellatrix LeStrange, who is easily the most captivating of the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 villains, who largely take a backseat to the emotional goings-on with the trio. Other familiar faces appear: Severus Snape, whom we last saw killing Dumbledore and taunting a distraught Harry; Dolores Umbridge, now a spiteful inquisitor in the Ministry's Nazi-like purge of "mudbloods" from the wizarding world; and Lucius Malfoy, who's become a cowering mess and gets symbolically castrated when Voldemort snaps the handle off his wand. Rising even above Voldemort (who actually isn't too memorable in this film, other than in the very last scene), Bellatrix unleashes a creative bloodlust late in this installment. She suddenly takes out a batch of snatchers with her wand-turned-whip and then proceeds to do some carving work on poor Hermione's forearm (check out the placement for another Nazi reference, aligning with all the propaganda and registrations coming from the Ministry). The endlessly talented Helena Bonham Carter brings out her crazy face and makes these scenes really crackle.
Lastly, I have to praise the animated "Tale of the Three Brothers" segment that gives us a visual break from bleak landscapes near the end of the film. As Hermione reads the children's fable that explains the Deathly Hallows of the title, an eerily beautiful, wordless sequence that evokes silhouettes and puppetry supplies the images. It's not wholly original, looking lots like the work of a certain husband of a certain crazy face actress on this film, but is wholly welcome thanks to its fabulous design and execution.
On a technical level, this Blu-ray presentation of Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is astounding. Colors are rendered expertly, even in the grim and barren atmospheres this story calls for, and illumination is perfectly balanced. The image is crisp and clear—other than in the irritating moments of extreme shaky-cam during the woods chase when you can't see any of the expensive and complicated stuff that's going on (please stop with that, cinematographers, please). The DTS-HD Master Audio track is equally impressive, with the many action scenes sprinkled among all that sitting around in the tent sounding rich and dynamic. Big sounds like Hagrid's motorbike and blasts from wands rumble powerfully while less showy sonic details—the grating whistling of the locket, or the crackle of Ron's radio—also come across well. The score from Alexandre Desplat once again establishes the dark mood beautifully, and punctuates lighter moments well, too.
A generous helping of extras are spread over two Blu-ray discs. The first contains Maximum Movie Mode, a fancy pants variant of ye olde commentary track. Instead of a continuous audio commentary, we instead have various members of the cast and crew coming onscreen in a digital background (like the grounds to Malfoy Manor) to talk about a scene as it continues to play in an inset. More than just letting us see the speaker, though, this mode also allows them to bring in an additional screen to show behind-the-scenes footage alongside the finished scene. So, for example, when the trio apparates to Piccadilly Circus in London, producer David Barron comes on screen to talk about how difficult it was to shoot there and shows us footage of tourists going wild when Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint show up to do the scene. Maximum Movie Mode is a great idea that comes off pretty well here, but still needs some help in the execution. The two problems are that, like the worst commentary tracks, a whole lot of dead air remains where you're just watching the movie again (and this is not a good way to actually watch it), and that most of the people we really want to see don't participate in the track directly. While Yates and the principle actors crop up and comment within the inset videos, they never stroll into the digital backgrounds to lead us through any segments. This absence is painfully felt when Nick Moran, who plays very minor character Scabior, appears multiple times in the track and gets a lot of screen time. He's perfectly pleasant, but definitely not an actor I was dying to see in the extras. Embedded within the Maximum Movie Mode or viewable separately on Disc One are five featurettes of 2-4 minutes each that spotlight different scenes, characters, or production details: "Hagrid's Motorbike," "Magical Tents!" "Death Eaters Attack Cafe," "Creating Dobby and Kreacher," and "The Return of Griphook."
Disc Two piles on many more featurettes. "The Seven Harrys" (5 min) reveals how the filmmakers did the first Polyjuice Potion scene, and how Radcliffe studied his fellow cast members to mimic their walks, gestures, and speaking patterns (he's a very good sport about having to wear Fleur's bra, too!). "On the Green with Rupert, Tom, Oliver and James" (14 minutes) documents a round of golf the lads play in Wales. It's nice to see them as friends off-screen, but between the accents, the mumbling, and the outdoor environment I only caught about half of their conversation. "Dan, Rupert and Emma's Running Competition" (3 minutes) shows the actors being cutely competitive about who can run the fastest while shooting the chase through the woods. Two final featurettes detail how the attack at Godric's Hollow (6 minutes) and the Horcrux destruction in the woods (4 minutes) were filmed. I enjoyed seeing the high-tech way they simulated the digital Nagini on-set: a crew member poking at Radcliffe with a boxing glove on a pole. Disc Two also carries about 10 minutes of deleted scenes, which are unusually good. You can tell that everything here was cut for time and pace rather than quality, so it's great to see some actual sendoffs for the Dursleys, additional character moments between Ron and Harry and Ron and Hermione, and some extra details about the state of the wizarding world (Arthur Weasley tinkers with Muggle radios for those on the run, Ministry goons search the empty Granger house, Harry-as-Runcorn warns Arthur that he's being watched). There is one scene here that feels like it really should not have been left on the cutting room floor: a conversation in the tent in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione succinctly explain lots of crucial details from the books. They go over what Horcruxes they know about (and their significance in Tom Riddle's past), what kind of objects the others might be, and the name Voldemort is cursed to reveal the location of whoever says it (thus explaining how the trio were found in the London coffee shop and how Xenophilius calls the Death Eaters). Honestly, the 98 seconds this scene would have added to the film would have been a wise investment. The last batch of extras includes a spot about the soundtrack (4 minutes) and some great footage of the movie actors participating in the grand opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure theme park. Though this is blatant advertising for the park, it's neat to see how wowed folks like Radcliffe are. Having been there myself, I can confirm that it really is as magical a place as they make it out to be (other than the suffocating crowds).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I was excited to see a sticker on the outer Blu-ray packaging saying "Includes an Opening Scene of the Final Film." Imagine my disappointment when scouring all three discs in this set did not reveal this alleged scene. I have half a mind to send a box of Puking Pastilles to the Blu-ray folks at Warner Bros. for that…
As I said at the start, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is fantastic in its own right, much more than just preparation for this beloved saga's final chapter. Of course, it is also structured as a lead-in to that eagerly anticipated installment. After rewatching the last scene in which Voldemort violates Dumbledore's tomb and pries the Elder Wand from his frozen fingers, I couldn't be more ready and more excited.
Onward to the finale! I'll be first in line for the midnight show this July…well, probably not first. It takes a while to draw that lightning bolt scar on my forehead just right.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Maximum Movie Mode
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