“Obliviate, obliviate,” the young Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) whispers from behind her parents, as she casts a spell over them to deprogram their memory and not to involve them in the dangers she would be facing. She is set to meet two fellow dropouts from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry — the “Chosen One” Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and their friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint).
The trio is to comb the Earth for the seven missing Horcruxes, those small objects containing splinters of the soul of the Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), and therefore the guarantors of his immortality. In their travels they court death, but being heroes, they’ve got no choice. It’s the only way left to stop the overlord’s reign, before his machinery for total control and unspeakable cruelty can create a new breed of loyal “purebloods.”
Hence begins Part 1 of the screen adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s finale to “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” We can expect that this movie, by definition, will leave us hanging; it’s a teaser, yes, but one that’s entertaining in its own right. Technically, it is the least ambitious and impressive of the series’ film adaptations so far but the most important, and the trickiest.
Part 1 overflows with clues to the mysteries of the seven-story series, juicy revelations, as well as the move to center stage of the characters who could play key roles in the final installment. Loyal readers of Rowling’s volumes will easily recognize those elements, while those who haven’t read the books may be the luckier ones, since their curiosity can make them more alert to the twists and fine points of the story.
Like waiting in an anteroom of a museum exhibition of treasures from bygone eras, watching “Harry Potter version 7.1” is a visual presentation on what type of excitement could be in store in the main event, expected in mid-spring next year. What starts out to be a quest for the Horcruxes becomes for Harry, Ron and Hermione an eternity of dangers and discoveries, hounded to death by Lord Voldemort’s Death Eaters who streak through the sky like ominous condensation trails of a jet plane, ready to descend on earth to annihilate enemies in a swirl of a swooshing tornado. Early in the story, Harry is declared as state Undesirable No. 1 by a consolidating regime that has deployed eyes and ears everywhere.
***(SPOILER ALERT: The following may contain details that could spoil your viewing or reading pleasure.)***
The clues to the Hogwarts mysteries seem to be ever airborne or hanging over somebody’s neck: runes inscribed on floating parchment; enameled gold lockets that shelter an Horcrux; and silver necklaces that depict an intriguing symbol: a triangle with a line dividing it in the middle and a circle that is tangential to all its three sides. They all seem connected to the pivotal man of mystery, the late headmaster of Hogwarts and Harry Potter’s mentor-friend, Professor Albus Dumbledore, who now lies perhaps not in peace in a secret white tomb.
In Part 1, director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves try to keep us engaged through sudden shifts in time and place, aided by low-key digital imaging software. We are always in the middle of somewhere: a never-ending prairie, the snowy woods or some glen; and atop a craggy plateau on the Cliffs of Dover on a landscape that could be the granite wasteland of northern Siberia. We even accompany Harry to search for his parents’ graves in gloomy Godric’s Hollow. The computer-generated town looks like a cross between an 18th century village in Bohemia and a hamlet in Scandinavia. Such images owe nothing to Rowling’s books but are inspired by them.
Hogwarts’ urban landscape is strictly side-street London before the invention of the mobile phone. The working-class cafe where the three young wizards meet in secret, much too Muggly (ordinary), is almost a jarring note in an otherwise series of fancy locales were it not for the chance we get to witness the deadly power of their Deluminator weapon. But nothing tops the Edwardian Baroque interior of the reformed Ministry of Magic, which our heroes infiltrate incognito to steal an Horcrux locket that they will later pulverize. Situated underneath the Hogwarts Express Underground, the spic-and-span ministry interior has large black tiles, ornate brass-work, and gilded sculpting. While they do not touch the state of the art in CGI, they represent the imaginative best from the movie designers.
Although visually engaging, “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” does a mediocre job in delivering crisp, entertaining or even youthful dialogue. It does so very well in that Ministry of Magic sequence, which is subtly comic and witty, but otherwise no magic of language was conjured, leaving the actors doing their best with a tired script. Coming in a year of sparkling screenplays (led by “The Social Network,” “The Other Guys,” “The Kids Are All Right” and “Easy A”) and given the cultured style of the author –- learned and non-condescending yet still within the grasp of millions of young people — this oversight leaves me puzzled.
A love triangle, teen style
Alone together in a tent in the woods, and with Ron missing, Harry and Hermione get to dance to an adult rock number in an awkward but sweet scene that ends with their eyes meeting, both realizing that she and Ron are still a couple. With this intensifying love triangle, we realize how far the characters of the books and the actors of the movie have gone: from precocious children to jealousy-prone teens on the verge of post-adolescence. The good news is despite their celebrity status and relentless media spotlight, the three actors have kept some of their innocent looks and unpresumptuous attitude and we are happy to join them in the last days of their fantastical journeys.
Watson plays the Hermione as a perfectionist, attentive to details and a pillar of reason to her sometimes-childish partners. Grint is an impetuous Ron with a questioning stare and an air of dissatisfaction that sometimes bubbles to the surface. And Radcliffe gamely grabs his chance to be both physical and pensive, peeling off his shirt to recover the Sword of Gryffindor from the bottom of a frozen lake, and slowly evolving to a young man who is finally coming to grips with his role as the Chosen One, declaring that “nobody should die for me.”
The presence of big names in British cinema and theatre is comforting, adding not just weight but also shades of color and depth of character. As Voldemort, Fiennes — as watchable without a nose as with one — is an eloquent Shakespearean king gone completely mad. Helena Bonham Carter as prominent Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange has a sadistic streak that is totally reprehensible.
The giggles of Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge (undersecretary at the Hogwarts Registration Commission) may be infectious but her pompous ways as prosecutor and judge are abominable. And the gentle voice of Toby Jones as Dobby — a distant relative of Gollum, the cursed creature of “Lord of the Rings” – gives us the movie’s most beautiful line: “What a beautiful day . . . to die with friends.”
At this point, all the clues have been laid on the table, except for one, the most important. It’s a tale that has been retold and forgotten, only to resurface in dark times such as these. Narrated by Hermione and presented as an animation that owes its beauty to Javanese wayang kulit shadow puppet plays, “The Tale of the Three Brothers” is about three wizards who build a bridge that so impresses Death that he awards them three objects: the all-powerful and elegantly carved Elder Wand; the Resurrection Stone that can raise the dead; and a fail-proof Invisibility Cloak. How they figure in Part 1 and 2, and how significant they are, is for the viewer to find out.
Finally, this tip: Early in the story, we learn from an elegantly dressed woman that ace biographer Rita Skeeter has dug up some eye-opening facts about the late Professor Dumbledore from his former town-mate Bathilda Bagshot, who is spending her last days at Godric’s Hollow. This gossipy lady comes out of the blue to tell us things we may need to know about the Wizard par excellence, a web of intrigue it turns out.
I may be wrong but I suspect that she’s none other than the alter ego of J.K. Rowling in an unheralded cameo, spilling some of the beans of what to expect in Harry Potter’s grand closer. It’s something to look forward to and, with some trepidation, I hope the best is yet to come.