Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I (2010)

Few things have had an indelible impact on my life: the Harry Potter series is one of them. I was 12 years old, when a friend (you know who you are.) introduced me to the awesomeness of Harry Potter. Four books had been released until then and what started out as a sceptical read turned into an unrivalled obsession. Few books I can claim to have read, let alone re-read over and over till I have lost count. The Harry Potter books fall in the latter category. I stood in line at 5:30 a.m. on a dry, cool Bangalore morning to buy the first few copies of the Deathly Hallows and threatened to sock the first guy who bought it, opened to the last page and gasped. Yes, that is the only time I have ever threatened to beat the crap out of anyone and actually meant it. What I’m saying is that the series meant something to me and to millions others of my generation: we literally grew up with Harry Potter.

How does one judge a Harry Potter film? I, for one don’t judge it for its special effects, camerawork or production design. And I wouldn’t dare be pompous enough to comment on the performances of the veteran actors, arguably the most talented ensemble ever assembled for a single film/series. The quality of their work is a foregone conclusion. No, I judge a Harry Potter film by how it tells the story I loved so much on the screen. I am not a purist and I don’t care for imitation. I expect liberties to be taken; it’s a different medium and hence, must play to its own strengths. But what I do care for is that the spirit of the book is captured on screen and that the film tells a coherent story which would be accessible even to someone who has not read the books. 

On that scale of expectations, the films have, by and large, butchered the books: the first two massacred its spirit in favour of an unimaginative imitation of the source material; the third just butchered the story, removing key elements of the plot which were crucial to the series and unforgivably truncating two of the most interesting characters in Harry’s world then: Sirius Black and Remus Lupin. The fourth was too complex to condense into a single film, perhaps the only entry in the series that actually deserved two films. Basically, until then, the films to me were  both, a commercial hack job and an artistic embarrassment.

However, the entry of David Yates has perhaps been the best thing that happened to the series. Like his previous works (State of Play, the BBC miniseries among others), he demonstrated an ability to balance the serious themes with whimsical, humorous elements without derailing the emotional core of the story. In fact, cinematically, his approach was the closest to literary style and tone of Rowling in the books. Surely, he took liberties with the source material but did so keeping in mind the strengths of cinema as a medium and those of the books themselves. In doing so, not only did he capture the spirit of the books, a feat I believe far more crucial, and difficult to achieve than mere factual imitation, but also managed to give an emotionally gratifying cinematic experience, something I thought this series was incapable of. It’s for these reasons, if no other, I looked forward to the 7th film in the series with some guarded optimism. And thankfully, the first part of the final entry impresses...for the most part.

A quick overview of the plot: Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), now 17, has come of age and has chosen to leave Hogwarts to go find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes. Accompanying him on this journey are his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). Dumbledore is dead and the Ministry has been infiltrated by the Death Eaters. The peril is more pronounced and the danger more immediate than ever before. With the enemy catching up inexplicably fast,, Harry must learn how to destroy the Horcruxes before time runs out. He must also deal with leaving and in some cases, losing loved ones.

There are some moments of brilliance in the film. The opening sequences are the most poignant in the series and in their quiet, unassuming way leave a surprisingly strong impact. The atmosphere of fear, paranoia and constant danger has been created here with unparalleled success as compared to the rest of the series. The moving out of Hogwarts provides an opportunity to embellish the film visually with beautiful scenery and breathtaking vistas; an opportunity David Yates makes full use of. Yates also scores well once again, in adding humour and relief even in some of the darkest moments in the film. There are emotional moments that, though departing from the book are spot on especially the plot devices used to create the tension between Harry, Ron and Hermione. There will be purists who will criticise them but I think they work extremely well in the film. The greatest moment of the film, however, is the revealing of the Deathly Hallows. The tale of the three deathly hallows is exquisitely conjured up on screen and is a testament to the power of cinema as a medium of storytelling. Those few minutes are awe inspiring and remain with you for a long time after.

However, there are a few serious errors here as well. In its over-zealousness to stay true to the source material to satisfy purists, a few sequences from the book do not translate well on the screen at all. This is particularly true in the emotional moments that are, in fact, taken from the book which are more awkward than endearing on screen. Further, there is no artistic justification whatsoever for splitting the last book into two films. Although faithful to the source material, the narrative is slow in the middle the languorous pacing proves that in adapting a book, condensing is not only inevitable, but also imperative. Film is a different medium and it is a wholly different task to hold an audience’s attention span for 150 minutes of film as compared to 500 pages of a book. Honestly, the story could have been condensed into a single longer film much like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and been just as good, if not better. As expected, the end is abrupt and it will be excruciating to wait for 6 months to see the final film.

Although I said that performances are not a basis to judge a Harry Potter film on, I would single out one performance here. Rupert Grint takes giant leaps as an actor and delivers an intelligent and powerful performance. For once, he gets a chance to do more than just humour and he seizes the opportunity to shine. He has had most success in making the transition into an adult actor and the tension between him and Emma Watson is electric in the film.

Overall, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I has some flaws, the most serious one being the last two words in its title. But as a prelude to the finale, it is a surprisingly satisfactory adaptation with moments of true cinematic brilliance in all the right places. It sets the stage well and gets important little details right which are crucial to Part II although people may not realise immediately. Moreover, it patiently tells a coherent story keeping in mind an audience that would be unfamiliar with the source material, howsoever few. Purists will still find faults in the film. However, as the beginning to the end, as much as I am shocked to admit to this, it not only met my expectations, it surpassed them.

A cautionary final word: Part I howsoever good is only one half of an entire film. Its greatness or mediocrity will only truly be determined by the quality of Part II. But looking at Part I, hopefully, we may have a Return of the King in our hands and not a Matrix Revolutions. However, until we know for sure, it's best to remember that this is an incomplete film and expect accordingly. 

8 comments:

  1. u just go too deeply into the matter than you should ...relax! :p

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  2. i pay good money for a film. i expect its worth. :)

    may i know who you are?

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  3. I like. Very much! :)
    You've got me even more stoked about the movie than I was! :D
    I am SO glad it's not in 3D.

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  4. I am also glad they chose not to convert it to 3D.

    Although I do hope you don't get too stoked. Expectations often, can be a bitch with films.

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  5. Dude, i actually saw it.. what's the fuss about man? the lead 3 were hardly convincing as actors.

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  6. You are entitled to your opinion. Just don't tell too many people what you are basing it on. :) People will not take too kindly to it.

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  7. Has he not read the books? I didn't like the movie though. Way too slow, no reason for splitting the 7th book.

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  8. He has neither read the books, nor seen any of the previous films. :) And yes, it does get a bit dull because there is no justification for the splitting. I was re-reading the book and 2/3rd of it has been fit into this film. They could have just shortened this, added one more hour and given a Return Of The King type finale.

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