Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The beginning of the end of Harry Potter

The film journey of the now not-so-young wizard Harry Potter is just one more film a way from completion. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was the seventh and final book in author J.K. Rowling's phenomenally successful book series, but Warner Bros. is releasing it in two parts.

The decision to split the film clearly allows the studio to squeeze every last bit of money out of its billion-dollar franchise. The two parts combined will comprise one five-hour film. This would've been a tough sell, but fans still would've come out. A five-hour film would have received fewer screenings at movie theaters though, so the split makes solid financial sense.

The length is not unjustified. “Deathly Hallows” was the longest of Rowlings' series and densely packed with details. A compressed three-hour version would've gotten the job done, but much of the nuance of the story would have been lost.

More so than any of the other films, this is the first screen adaptation that feels almost exclusively made for the fans. Previous adaptations have caused some grumbling about things that were cut for time; clearly with five hours between two films to play with, that's less of an issue now.

This new film makes no attempt to try bring non-fans into the fold and, at this point, why should it? You're either a fan or not. Casual fans be warned though, this film takes its time and those who aren't completely emotional invested in these characters may start getting antsy.

The plot has the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes tapping into an essence of evil) and his henchpeople the deatheaters taking over the Ministry of Magic and making Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) public enemy number one. Harry is the chosen one, the only one who could kill Voldemort.

Each entry in this series is progressively dark than the last and this is the bleakest yet. There are no more fun and games at Hogwarts Academy. Harry and his two best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) head out on their own to seek horcruxes, objects that contain parts of Voldemort's soul and the key to undoing his immortality.

While there are brief appearances by the massive list of British acting greats that the series has accumulated over the years, including Brendon Gleeson, David Thewlis, Robbie Coltrane, the ever sinister Alan Rickman as Snape and the creepy and insane Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, this is largely a three-man show with Radcliffe, Grint and Watson required to do all the heavy lifting. They are up to the challenge.

One of the joys of this film series has been watching these three young actors grow as performers. It is remarkable no re-casting ever occurred. Who would've guessed back when this all start with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone” in 2001 that the casting director had chosen this wisely? These three have developed into fine actors capable of struggling with complex emotions without a single word of dialogue.

Much of the screen time deals with the trio camping out in the forest trying to make sense of their journey. A horcrux they have in their possession brings out unpleasant feelings, particularly in Ron who becomes jealous of Harry and begins to fear he may be losing his girlfriend Hermione to Harry. These fears come to the fore in a dream sequence that's shocking in its cruelty and its content: There's partial nudity and intense kissing.

The tone of the film is foreboding, pensive and somber. There are long stretches where the plot is barely moving forward, but the character dynamics are given shading. There's a lovely scene in which Harry and Hermione share a dance. It is a moment of brevity with the characters remembering, if only for a moment, that it was like before all the darkness.

The film's deliberate pacing is peppered with sequences of taut action that are more thrilling than anything previously seen in the series. The opening features Harry's defenders humorously becoming Harry clones to throw his pursuers off. This gives way to a taut chase through the streets and skies of London.

There is also an intense sequence involving breaking into and escaping the Ministry of Magic and a battle with Voldemort's pet giant snake. All this material earns the film its PG-13 rating, and the youngest Potter fans may be frightened.

Amidst all the gloom and action there's also a beautiful animated sequence that explains the deathly hallows of the title. It is a graceful and artful moment that probably wouldn't have made the cut in an abridged version of the book. It is moments like that which make the extra length feel worthy and reminds how sad it will be see this franchise come to an end.

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