[19 November 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“You may be the chosen one and all that. But this is a whole lot bigger than that.” In making this declaration, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) reveals a limit to his best-friendish patience. For years, he and Hermione (Emma Watson) have been tending to Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), helping him bear his emotional burdens—the expectation that he’ll save all wizardry, the trauma of his parents’ murders, and his own reluctant heroism. But now, at the start of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, as Harry is trying to sneak away from the Weasley home at night, Ron has a new perspective.
You might call that perspective grown-up. When Ron first stops Harry from venturing into this world alone, the two friends are briefly and familiarly at odds, Ron maintaining his good and self-deprecating sense of humor, Harry angsty and undecided. But as soon as Ron picks up Harry’s backpack and heads back to the house, assuming that they’ve made a mutual decision, it’s clear they are, or at least that Harry is willing at last to go along with the possibility that they are.
Certainly, the kids’ changing appearances suggest their new outlooks have to do with maturing: they’re all taller, the boys’ chins show stubble, and Hermione must contend with new sorts of looks at her body. But David Yates’ film—based on the first two-thirds of the last book in J.K. Rowling’s series—also makes what they see very different too. No longer are they functioning within the walls of Hogwarts or even Muggle enclaves. Instead, they are cast out into a wide, harsh natural world, where nights are cold, winds are brisk, and walks are long.
The decision to head out is not taken lightly. The film underscores the difficulty in its opening moments, as Hermione, in particular, leaves her Muggle home. Being a child of mixed blood (Muggle and magical), she’s long straddled two worlds, and now her decision to pitch wholly into one in order to save the other appears to be a singularly mature and painful one. She stands behind her parents, and casts a spell that erases her, not only from their memories but also literally from every family photo in the living room. Her eyes fill with tears and theirs glaze over, the film insisting here that your past and future are both shaped by what and how you see (whether you’ve been bedazzled by a spell or not).
Hermione’s sense of loss and displacement is emphasized as she steps outside, the camera pulling up and out as she walks alone on the lampless street. She and the boys then undertake a couple of efforts to remain within their longstanding community. First they embark on a brief and not exactly successful mission with the help of some adult-types (namely, Hagrid [Robbie Coltrane] and Mad-Eye [Brendan Gleeson]), hoping to secret Harry away from Voldemort’s constant threat: seven volunteers imbibe a potion so that they all become Harry Potters, a gambit most notable for the vision of Fleur (Clémence Poésy) in transition: Harry’s face looks down at Harry’s body—still wearing her bra. This will be their only flying scene, with brooms and creatures and Hagrid’s motorcycle-with-sidecar roaring into the night sky, only to meet with mayhem.
A second group scene is more like a moment out of a John Ford movie. Bill (Domhnall Gleeson) and Fleur get married, with a tent and vittles and dancing, all very community-ritualistic until a gang of Death Eaters makes an entrance and Hermione makes the executive decision to whisk her and the two boys away to another place entirely—apart from teachers, parents, or even older siblings.
On their own, the threesome determines to go in search of a couple of Horcruxes (the lockets in which Voldemort has stored pieces of his evil soul). Their travel is hectic, as Hermione (as always, the one who’s “best with spells”) zaps them from one desolate location to another—forests and heaths, rocky plateaus and a cemetery in the dead of night. Their new locations are also refreshing, given how much time we’ve spent with them inside Hogwarts.
Perhaps the oddest (and most entertaining) adventure this time occurs in another sort of wilderness, as they devise a secret mission inside the Ministry of Magic. Disguised as middle-aged office workers, perspiring and baffled, they’re visibly baffled by these aged bodies - only how they feel but how they are perceived by their fellow adults. This interior is especially fascistic, as Ministry of Magic workers produce old-fashioned propaganda pages while seated at rows and rows of desks. Voldemort’s regime means to set boundaries and declare enemies, specifically taking the form of a racist campaign against the mating (miscegenation) of Muggles and wizards, as this produces “mud-bloods” (one page’s headline proclaims, “Mud-Bloods: The Danger They Pose!”).
This climate means not only that Hermione is at a particular risk, but also that the assumptions the kids have all held—that Muggles and wizards can get along—are now outlawed. As they spend more time with each other, they also begin to worry about whom to trust and where their own borders may lie. And yes, they are trying to sort out what it means to grow up. Hermione is especially good at expressing the combined thrill and horror of growing up, her face a perpetually shifting map of complicated emotions , whether she’s literally putting back together Ron’s injured arm-and-shoulder (her bloody hands indicate her horror at having to deal so directly with flesh and fluids) or setting the boys straight on their course of action or their own increasingly fraught competition over her attentions.
One scene especially showcases why they are so enchanted, when Harry entices her to dance to a Nick Cave song on the radio and she reluctantly-then-sweetly agrees. Though it serves a basic plot function—to show that she and Harry do share a certain tension (one later made nightmarish in a vision visited on a delirious Ron Weasley, where an airbrushy-digitized Harry and Hermione appear white-bluishly naked and kissing!)—it is more notable for displaying Hermione’s grace. Ever the girl in this threesome, that is, at least a step ahead of the boys in grappling with hormones and fears, she is in this film, the beginning of the end, also engaging, complex, and less mysterious than wonderful. Now the boys only need to catch up.