4 stars out of 5
The modern cinematic experience is conventionally clocked at around 90 minutes. Cynics will say that this running time justifies a particular cost of entry and allows for a certain number of screenings each day.
To take a book like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the concluding volume of the series, and turn it into a 90-minute film would have been extremely difficult and an injustice to the JK Rowling’s story.
So it made sense to split this final book into two films, the first currently playing, presumably through the festive season, the second to play in July 2011. Sure, two films will make that much more money than just one.
And if they had released this as a single five-hour film, not many would be able to sit through it and come away pleased. Perhaps the ideal would have been part one, followed by a half-hour break, followed by part two. This double-bill may yet come to pass in some territories next year.
For now, viewers have to be content with just part one – therein lies the problem for some. The film will feel unfinished because it is; the film builds up to an important plot development over 146 minutes, before setting the stage for the thrilling, action-packed finale that Rowling has devised.
In the book, the lonely and frightened wanderings of the three friends, Harry, Hermione and Ron (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint), as they search for horcruxes – pieces of that villain Voldemort’s soul – to destroy, don’t entail an eight-month wait before the climactic pay-off arrives.
In the film, however, it forms a major part, one that significantly slows the pace of the narrative and will test the patience of those unfamiliar with the storyline.
For this viewer, who has read Book Seven, this part one was a comforting film. It has been well-made and it feels familiar. Each time a significant passage of the film is negotiated on screen, one can’t help but feel that director David Yates and his team have got it spot on.
There is the initial getaway by Harry from the Dursleys, where the Order of the Phoenix’s dangerous plan to sweep him away to a safe-house with the use of Harry lookalikes; the subsequent trouble at Bill and Fleur’s wedding; the quixotic search for horcruxes that threatens to ruin the friendship – not to mention good health – of Harry, Hermione and Ron; and a daring and improbable escape from Voldemort’s followers.
For me, all of the key moments were wonderfully realised, with a great feel for storytelling and a sensible use of special effects, with possibly one case of gratuitousness in the form of a raunchy fantasy when a horcrux threatens to overwhelm Ron.
The treatment of The Tale of the Three Brothers, a fairytale of the wizarding realm related by Luna Lovegood’s father and pivotal to the understanding of what’s needed to defeat Voldemort, in a lovely animation short was simply entrancing.
For the most part, the film is often dire, dark and ominous, fittingly so as the original story plumbs the depths before the end, fully aware that it is always darkest before the dawn. And it manages to conclude on a genuinely heartfelt emotional note that does not ring false despite the involvement of a CGI character with a ridiculous voice.
Upon close examination, one might note that the young actors’ range are being stretched to the limit here – although the senior performers do very well – such that they might have been found out in a lesser film.
On the balance, especially if parts one and two are viewed in quick succession, and taking the entire theatrical franchise as a whole, this is mere nitpicking.
This film may have unfinished business, as The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers had, and it may leave those unfamiliar with past films and the books befuddled, but it is still a riveting piece of work, one that whets the appetite for a conclusion that feels too far away – for this fan at least.
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.