My love for what David Yates has brought to the Harry Potter franchise can be exemplified by one short scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. After weeks of wandering about the beautiful English landscape with nothing to show for their adventures, Ron decides he’s had enough and leaves. Harry and Hermione are left on their own and after pitching their tent in a new cliffside locale and settling into their grief Harry hears some music. He is sitting outside the tent when he hears the sounds of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Taking that as his cue, he goes inside the tent and sits down lazily on a chair. He sees the sadness in Hermione’s eyes as she is lost in the music and her own thoughts, and so he gets up, takes her by the hand and begins to dance. What follows is a heartwarming montage of their dancing, Harry’s extremely awkward movements and all. It’s a slice of joy amidst a world of darkness and loss, and when the song is over the dance ends and once again all Harry and Hermione have for comfort is each other. There is a moment, a split second, when it seems like maybe they will take that comfort to another level and truly embrace, but the moment passes too quickly and Hermione’s thoughts move right back to where they were just a few moments earlier. It’s a small scene filled with life, love, friendship and sadness and it rings as one of the truest expressions of character and emotion I have scene in a film in a long time.
It’s also a scene I could never have imagined being featured in any of the pre-Yates films. Even the visual splendour of Cauron’s Prisoner of Azkaban would not have been enough to support a moment so soaked in character. David Yates successfully took films that were largely exercises in transferring plot to screen and turned them into films about the real growth of the main characters. Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is probably the very best example of this so far. Yates finds the true heart of the film in the emotional journey of Harry, Ron and Hermione. The much talked-about camping scenes may slow the pace of the film, but they do so in order to make the film more contemplative and emotionally centred.
Deathly Hallows is very much about our leads stepping out into the real world and coming to terms with the fact that they may not be ready for what awaits them. Scenes like the aforementioned dance and the darker scene in which Harry and Ron verbally spar exemplify this. That fight is perhaps one of the sharpest, most shocking moments in any of the films, and it all comes down to the great acting from Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint as well as the hands-off approach from the director. The scene plays out so naturally that the emotion comes through extremely strongly and the words being thrown around convey a hurt much deeper than a fistfight ever could.
Camping, verbal sparring, dancing, and emotional turmoil aren’t the only things at play in Deathly Hallows: Part 1, though. There is actually an important plot involving the arduous task of finding and destroying Horcruxes. It’s a mission so difficult, in fact, that over the course of the film only one of four remaining Horcruxes is actually found and destroyed. It may seem like the plot is quite spare, but it doesn’t stop the film from being one of the most acton packed in the franchise. There are several great action scenes and set pieces that range from foot chases to mini horror films. One sequence in particular, the infiltration of the Ministry of Magic in order to retrieve one of the lost Horcruxes, is thrilling and very funny as well.
The film also has a smaller plot that grows in importance as events proceed to the end. The Deathly Hallows themselves are explained and become a featured part of the story. The necessary exposition is ingeniously done through an animated representation of a children’s fairy tale. And it’s not only a great little story, the animation itself is mesmerizing. What we learn is that there are three objects—the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility—which on their own are powerful, but when brought together make one master of death. Voldemort is after the Elder Wand, which can not be beaten in a duel, in order to overcome the strange connection between Harry’s wand and his own.
The film also contains quite a bit of death. Three characters are killed during the film, and a montage in which the trio trek across the country listening to a radio reveals that many more wizards we have never met have been reported missing. It all contributes to the underlying tone of war and darkness that is necessary to push the characters to the depths of their will. But Yates knows not to go too far with it, adding jokes and gags to lighten the mood where possible and add some hope to a situation that often seems hopeless. He also isn’t afraid to push the menace to heights never before seen in the franchise. The film’s second scene features a teacher from Hogwarts suspended in the air over a table as the Death Eaters discuss what they are plotting and then killed as she pleads for mercy from Snape. Another scene later in the film could play perfectly in an intense horror film, with blood-spattered walls, a creepy old woman turning into a snake, and more than a couple jump scares to satisfy anyone craving some fright.
One thing must be clarified about this film though, and that is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is not a film. Not really. It’s only half of a film. The “Part 1” in the title is quite literal. Deathly Hallows was made as one four hour film and then chopped roughly down the middle. The end point of the film does serve as a logical cliffhanger, and whether it works as a satisfying cliffhanger is debatable, but the film itself does not have a complete arc in any way. It is one half of a story and contains mostly setup with nearly no payoff. All that payoff will presumably occur Part 2, but for now it is impossible to properly judge Part 1 as a standalone film. That isn’t a knock against the film, it’s simply a statement of fact.
Even though Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 isn’t really a full film on its own, as a piece of a larger puzzle it stands apart as being one of the best, most fully realized entries in the series. It contains plenty of action, thrills and humour, and it’s all held together by some of the best character development we have seen so far. It all comes back to that dance scene. A scene like that would have been impossible in Philosopher’s Stone, and the mere fact that Yates could pull off a scene of such depth and completely without dialogue is a testament to the way he has been able to infuse true emotion in this series of fantasy films. Best of all, this Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 has me extremely excited for the big finale.