HARRY POTTER AND THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Writing this review is the most pointless exercise of my cinematic year, because every Potterphile who can get to a multiplex is going to see “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” no matter what some tinhorn critic says. But I'm going to go through with this on the off chance that it will help some poor moviegoer to say “Aha!” instead of spluttering “but...but...”
The truism that we've been passing around since about the time of “Prisoner of Azkaban” is that anyone who hasn't followed the series since the beginning, either in print or on film, might as well not bother with the later movies, because they'd be plunged into a self-contained world with characters, backstory, and even a private vocabulary that would utterly confound them.
On the other hand, if you're one of those people, this new episode would be as good a place as any to jump in cold, because the producers have cut the last Harry Potter volume into two movies, and this first half does nothing but provide the exposition that leads up to the Big Finish, arriving next summer.
The producers have made much noise of their decision to split the book, claiming that it will give them a chance to be more faithful to the detail of Rowling's narrative. Well, yes and no.
The movie series has frequently trimmed whole characters and subplots out of the scripts in order to streamline the narratives, and many people, yours truly included, think this has been a swell idea. For one thing, Jo Rowling is too important (read lucrative) an author to be subjected to editing, so she can put in as much extraneous cutesy stuff as she likes. Removing a lot of that dead wood has let the filmmakers make a perfectly entertaining movie of “The Order of the Phoenix,” for example, which, at 766 pages, is actually longer than “The Deathly Hallows.”
One possible reason for the split is that “The Deathly Hallows” is the absolute final episode, and since most everybody has read the book, most everybody already knows how it ends. By delaying the end, the producers may hope to draw crowds who don't remember it. (Personally, I have a general idea but I'm hazy on the details.)
It's far more likely that Warner Brothers, looking forward sorrowfully to the demise of the greatest cash cow in studio history, couldn't bear to say good-by without stretching it out for one more go. Whichever reason you go with, it ends up, theoretically, with more cash for Warner Brothers. (Can Magic overcome Greed, or Cynicism? Unlikely.)
Where we are with Part One of Part Seven, or the First Part of the Last Part, is watching a whole lot of expository scene-setting interspersed with some wild action sequences, but not enough of the latter. In fact, this whole movie reminds me of what Professor Peter Schickele famously said about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: I don't know whether it's slow or fast, because it keeps stopping.
The thing I remember most clearly about the book is, naturally, the dullest part: after escaping from the Deatheater attack at Bill and Fleur's wedding, Harry, Hermione and Ron go on an extended camping trip, where they mope and moan and argue and complain. The movie is very faithful to this section, jumping the trio around to bleaker and bleaker locations, where the color scheme goes from gray to grayer to oh-my-lord-this-is-dreary-beyond-belief. Whenever somebody has a brainstorm they pop off on another adventure to find a horcrux, such as infiltrating the Ministry of Magic, which has become something like the Nazi High Command, or a side trip to get info from Xenophilius Lovegood, where they end up prisoners of the Malfoys.
These errant quests are filmed with something of the old zest and humor that we've come to expect from the series, but they invariably end up back at the Magic Pup Tent, where everything stops dead. This is where we learn the connections to Tolkien's One Ring: a horcrux cannot be destroyed by any means we possess; and whoever carries one becomes, if not invisible, at least increasingly cranky.
Still, there are moments of brilliance, such as the animation that accompanies Hermione's reading of The Tale of the Three Brothers, which is where we learn the significance of the Deathly Hallows. And there's a lovely scene, perhaps the only one not in the book, where Harry and Hermione, in Ron's absence, share a quiet slow dance that illuminates their platonic relationship better than any made-up dialogue. In fact, the growth of the talented and touching and vulnerable performances of the three young principals will possibly last in cinema history as the greatest achievement of the series.
We can hope that the absolutely-last-final episode next summer will give us many such brilliant and thoughtful moments, as well as the excitement and sense of finality that we're all expecting. It'll be useless to write about it, but I certainly will.