Normally when I sit down to watch a new Harry Potter movie in theaters, I'm excited to see how the story plays out on screen. But after director Daniel Yates' criminal bungling of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, my feeling while waiting for Deathly Hallows to start was mostly apathetic. Luckily for Yates, he did the impossible -- he crafted a movie that has once more made me excited about seeing Harry, Ron, Hermione and company on the big screen.
Full disclosure: I am an unabashed fan of the Harry Potter series -- the novels. The first through fifth films were okay, but after I watched Half-Blood Prince a year and a half ago, I was livid -- and, quite frankly, unsure whether I even cared about the seventh film. I bitched about the movie the whole ride home (and for several weeks afterward), and was ambivalent toward the first part of this seventh film. "How much more is Yates going to fuck up the storyline?" was my main concern. I hated Half-Blood Prince so much that I've refused to watch it again. (I own the first five films, and watch them -- and re-read the novels -- on a regular basis; twice a year, at least. Just to give you an idea how upset I was.)
There were two major crimes that David Yates committed in Half-Blood Prince. The first was shirking vital parts of the storyline, then throwing in a full scene that wasn't even in the book. (Remember when Bellatrix and some other Death Eaters burn down the Burrow and chase some of the protagonists through the fields? What the hell was that all about? What was the point? To show how evil Death Eaters are? How devastating fire can be? What?!)
The second was his treatment of the scene wherein Snape kills Dumbledore atop the astronomy tower at Hogwarts. Readers of the novel will remember this was a major cliffhanger between Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows. In the books, it's unclear whether Snape is a true Death Eater or is still following Dumbledore's orders, but there's much more evidence that Dumbledore made a mistake in trusting Snape. It's too obvious in the film that there's a deeper game being played between Snape and Dumbledore. (And why leave Harry stranded under the floor instead of Stupefied atop the tower? That entire scene had myriad aspects that pissed me off.)
It's been suggested that the decision to split Deathly Hallows into two films was primarily financial -- more movies, more money -- but I think that some allegiance to the plot was also taken into consideration. Even if Yates had made a four-hour movie, there's no way he would have been able to tie up all the loose plotlines and finish the film the way the book intended. He made such a mess of Half-Blood Prince that I was sure he wouldn't be able to clean it up, even with two movies.
As Harry's getting ready to leave his aunt and uncle's home for the last time, Yates skips over the interaction with the Dursleys, but keeps the moment where Harry peers into the cupboard under the stairs, his first room, for the last time. A shot of a tin soldier on a shelf and the dusty appearance of the closet skillfully conveys Harry's thoughts. Yates also uses the scene where members of the Order of the Phoenix appear to help Harry escape the house; there, we are introduced to Bill, and learn he is to marry Fleur, and that he was attacked by Fenrir Greyback. We also meet Mundungus Fletcher for the first time -- he's not a major character, but has information Harry will need in a few minutes. At least Yates managed to squeeze him in before it became vital.
Voldemort's fury at losing Harry in the following flight illustrates the scope of destruction being wreaked on the countryside, Muggles or no Muggles. Hedwig is blasted out of the sky (instead of while in her cage at Harry's side), and Remus Lupin's fear and agitation when he verifies Harry's identity is clear.
Yates does an excellent job of displaying the mood of the book with a few key shots. It's no coincidence that suddenly the uniforms of lackeys at the Ministry of Magic look an awful lot like the uniforms the SS wore in World War II-era Germany. Yates also works in shots of fliers and pamphlets designed in that era's propaganda style, and the talk of blood purity and the new statue at the Ministry of Magic is well-placed. A quick scene of the train on the way to Hogwarts for the new school year indicates that elsewhere, things are going on as somewhat normal -- but Harry's magical map of Hogwarts also shows Snape in the headmasters' office, as he assumed that position when the Ministry of Magic fell.
I was particularly concerned about what Yates would do with Dobby; the house elf rescues Harry, Hermione, Ron and assorted company from the dungeon of Malfoy Manor in Deathly Hallows, but we haven't seen him in the films since Chamber of Secrets. Dobby re-appears momentarily in Deathly Hallows before this vital scene, helping Kreacher capture Mundungus Fletcher so Harry can question him.
There are a lot of small things missing from the film, as expected. The tedium of planning the assault on the Ministry of Magic is completely glossed over, as is Harry's changed relationship with Kreacher and the story of how Regulus Black obtained the locket Horcrux. Remus Lupin's difficulty with his marriage to Tonks and his attempt to join Harry, Ron and Hermione in their quest is completely omitted as well.
Yates fully captures the complete scope of the tension and hurt feelings between Harry, Ron and Hermione as they search for the Horcruxes, though, in a sort of trade-off. The looks and body language from the three actors are significant, and Radcliffe, Grint and Watson rise to the challenge. This isn't child's play anymore, we're reminded over and over, by little clues like names of dead wizards read off the radio behind a montage sequence. After the fight with Ron and his disappearance, Harry and Hermione share a dance to Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds's "O Children," but it's clear that Ron is part of the glue that holds the two of them together. The jealousy Ron feels at Harry and Hermione's relationship, and the frustration Ron and Hermione feel at Harry's lack of knowledge, is well conveyed. Yates also uses a noteworthy, stark, beautiful animation scene to tell "The Tale of the Three Brothers."
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On the other hand, there are some major themes in the Deathly Hallows novel that Yates (so far) has failed to address. It's clear that Rita Skeeter has written a book about Dumbledore, but the nature of the book -- and of Dumbledore's past issues -- is utterly unclear. As a result, Harry's inner struggle regarding his mentor and hero is glossed over. In the novel, Dumbledore's family past, his friendship with Grindelwald and the Muggle-enslaving ideas that ensued between the two young wizards are painfully clear to Harry, causing him to question whether he really knew Dumbledore at all. All we learn in the film is that at some point, a photo was taken of Dumbledore and Grindelwald together. There is no mention of how they met, how they parted or the famous duel they fought -- and when Voldemart tracks Grindelwald down to ascertain the whereabouts of the Elder Wand, Grindelwald tells him without a fight instead of refusing to help him.
In fact, Harry, Ron and Hermione might be completely unaware that the invisible cloak they've been hiding under for years is one of the three Hallows -- at least, it's not clear in the film (as it is in the book) whether they realize just how special that cloak is while speaking with Xenophilius Lovegood.
Perhaps this is something that will be addressed in the second part of the Deathly Hallows. The first film ends after the escape from Malfoy Manor; Harry has just buried Dobby, and Voldemort has cracked open the white marble of Dumbledore's tomb to retrieve the Elder Wand. A scuffle between Harry and the true master of the Elder Wand in the first part of Deathly Hallows sets the scene for what's to come.
Although Yates had a lot of book to get through (more than 500 pages), plus some character-introduction and storyline-polishing to attend to, he has done an admirable job tying up the various loose ends he left to dangle in Half-Blood Prince. Everything pertinent fits in the allotted two-and-a-half hours, he ends exactly where it makes the most sense, and the visual effects and cinematography are gorgeous. This is the closest look we've gotten yet inside the Ministry of Magic, and it's beautifully rendered. I'm looking forward to seeing what Yates does with Gringott's, the "train station" scene and the final confrontation, and I'm once again excited and on the edge of my seat for the next film.