Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Reviewed by Torey Lightcap

Directed by David Yates
Warner Bros.
146 min.
Rated PG-13

“He knew where Voldemort had been tonight.”

The penultimate film of the Harry Potter franchise culminates with a moment referred to in onlyHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows the most oblique of terms about two-thirds of the way through J.K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The movie, on the other hand, liberally interpolates.

The fact that screenwriter Steve Kloves and director David Yates feel free to expound upon this moment in the way they do is key. They are by now beyond comfortable with the Wizarding World conjured by Ms. Rowling’s pen. They don’t go anywhere without a clear sense of reverence for the Potter books and their legions of fans, but neither are they slaves fanatically chained to the text. They are free to invent, and invent they do.

Happily, it’s no trouble, because we need to see for ourselves precisely where Voldemort has gone tonight. Or at least on film we do. It’s like that with adaptation: Where Rowling merely refers parenthetically to certain events, Yates and his digital painters can be explicit and open, going wherever the mechanics of storytelling demand. And, of course, where film can be clipped and brusque, an author can linger, make landscapes, or just let her characters navel-gaze. In this sense, Part One of Deathly Hallows is a triumphant model of trust and cooperation between two media and their masters.

Holding a book or an e-reader—it’s … well, to state the obvious, it’s a different world from the theater. The owner of a book controls his own means of consumption. I tore through my now spine-split copy of Hallows like a downhill skier, dodging potential spoilers as one dodges the edges of cliffs, and hitting all the big notes and moments like moguls. I didn’t want to be scooped. Now, it seems, my path is slowed and the turns are harder; the snow is sloggy; the film wants me to linger over its characters, tracing their pathos back up the mountain.

What that lingering produces is primarily intimacy with the landscape of desolation, abandonment, fear, and hopelessness. It’s not unlike what one is meant to feel after reading the first act of the Book of Joel, when nothing is left to eat or even be sacrificed, and grasshoppers have destroyed everything. The film moves from place to place with a frustrating and calculated syncopation, desolation to desolation. We the viewers just have to take it as it comes.

If you don’t know the story at this point, don’t bother with the movie or with this review right now; just go to the first book and start reading. You need a keen grasp of Harry Potter’s inner life accreted over time to make sense of the land over which he roams in the film: the empty seaside; the rocktop hills; the quiet, snow-dusted turns of streams and upland valleys. Harry and his diehard friends are always escaping to the next place, hoping that in its blank or dusty or foggy features the clues to the elimination of a terrible evil might finally reveal and order and dispatch themselves. Walking the path of exile, Harry has nothing but time to contemplate the odious force overtaking everything he cares about.

Terrible evil indeed – Voldemort. When he so much as breathes, his most fiercely loyal toadies wail and cower. His plan to kill Harry and live forever sets him on a path where much of his business is done by himself rather than his followers. Why him and not one of his dark-suited sycophants? Because he kills along the way; kills people and blows up their homes. There’s no time for equivocation or conscience. He must collect quickly what he needs in order to become the most powerful wizard, the Master of Death. He can’t entrust the seeking-out of what he needs to others so clearly tempted to take power.

So he runs from place to place seeking the mythological treasures called “hallows” that enable one to cheat death forever. Simultaneously, Harry runs from place to place looking for “horcruxes,” the objects in which Voldemort has hidden bits of his fractured soul —looking to find, finding only to destroy.

There’s more at stake in this desperate race than merely some kind of magical bragging rights; the toys and trophies of Harry’s past as a Hogwarts student are but the playthings of children. This isn’t “Wand Out at the J.K. Corral.” Voldemort has the Wizarding World held tightly in his cold grasp, from the head of the government on down, and it’s plain from the first and second scenes that his first order of business after killing Harry will be the total genocide of any Muggle, that is, a human who doesn’t have purely magical blood running through his or her veins. After that … with whatever and whoever remains … fear, intimidation.

So there it is. They must face off. They must do one another in. Someone will die in the bargain.

Only Harry, I think, understands something Voldemort does not. Given that his old wand is broken, that something may be his only real weapon, and, in the end, the only weapon worth possessing.

That something is simply this: These books and films are not about magic per se, odd as that probably seems. They’re fundamentally about power, and what you do with power when you find out that you have it. Some will hoard that power and learn how to use it to intimidate, coerce, and even kill on a terrible scale. All for themselves.

Others, like Harry, will use their power to increase not themselves but the forces of love and friendship that dominate a larger world. Those who choose this path live, even if they die.

Copyright © 2010 Torey Lightcap.