Movie Review: 'Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part I'

It's the beginning of the end for Harry Potter. The seventh film in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, breaks half of JK Rowling's final Potter novel into a film of its own. The result is rather unlike anything else in the series, and, despite the not-quite cliffhanger structure that results, one of the most satisfying Potter films.

Thankfully hitting in 2D (much of the film is rather dark, and a 3D conversion might have seriously downgraded the image) the story represents the calm before the storm, in which Harry Potter and friends have to gather their courage for what must be a blow-out final battle. Despite a relative lack of action, this is the point where the characters, the actors behind them, and the efforts of behind-the-scenes creators from director David Yates on down all come together to present a cohesive whole that feels alive and foreboding.

Note that I said one of the most satisfying Potter films, rather than adaptations. I'm not a reader of the novels, having put them aside around the fourth because I became more interested in Harry Potter as a film story. (Reading a novel first will always force me to view a film through the parameters of the story as it is on the page; watching the film first and then attacking the book, I can somehow evaluate each on its own terms. Go figure.) I can't speak to this as an adaptation, but it is far more important, at least to me, that it works as a piece of film.

This film is not overly friendly to non-readers, as it jumps right into the story with no refresher montage, and no introductions to a great many characters. But the truly important stuff is either presented outright or can be deduced through context. The Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned and is expanding his power base, and he's got Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) on the run. Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) seek several missing Horcruxes, the destruction of which will enable the defeat of Voldemort. If you don't know or recall what a Horcrux is, it's enough to look at them as MacGuffins that the characters are quite eager to find. (They're pieces of Voldemort's soul placed in physical objects.)

This first chapter of The Deathly Hallows is a melancholy movie in which the characters are plagued by indecision and the burden of tasks they bear. We've watched the core Potter cast — Radcliffe, Watson and Grint — grow up and grow into their characters. This film sees them fleeing most of the world they know as Voldemort's forces gain power. Separated from familiar and comforting surroundings, the actors have only their characters to rely on, and here each demonstrates how thoroughly they've stamped these identities as their own. Harry, Hermione and Ron spend a great chunk of the film mired in doubt, but their plight remains compelling.

It is a more moody, visually beautiful Potter film than we've previously seen. There are fewer effects sequences and a lot of landscapes photographed with a sensitive eye for composition. Eduardo Serra's cinematography is superb. The murky woods and forlorn cliffs upon which Harry and friends take refuge from Voldemort are ideal visualizations of the uncertainty that plagues each character.

David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves restrain the script and refuse to clutter the film with dense dialogue, instead often letting the relationships between the core trio play out through glances and movement. One of the most effective moments for me is one not in the book — rather famously not in the book, for some fans — in which Harry and Hermione, in the absence of Ron, come to some unspoken terms about their relationship as friends. It's a very nice sequence that works uniquely as a piece of film with these actors we've followed for years.

Meanwhile, the totalitarian/fascist nature of Voldemort's forces is made clear to both the audience and some characters, like the Malfoy family. While the scenes of Harry and friends created an effective extended metaphor for those days where kids are poised on the cusp of adulthood, there are parallel moments of genuinely unsettling action where we see just how dire life under the Dark Lord would be.

(I am curious, and a bit apprehensive, to see how the final chapter will resolve some of the visual representations of Voldemort's forces. Right now there are images of Margaret Thatcher — Dolores Umbrage — and the Third Reich butting up against one another. Tinge of early '80s Alan Moore there. There are also developing images of a corrupted free press. It's a heady undercurrent to the story, and I'm eager to see how those aspects are resolved.)

But there are touches of life. Magic turns into effective comedy in a few instances, and David Yates mounts a couple of very effective action sequences. The Harry Potter films have often felt overburdened by a sort of 'guest star of the week' casting sensibility, thanks to the revolving cast of Hogwarts teachers. That cast has now become a powerful ensemble. The appearances of returning actors like David Thewlis and Imelda Staunton are sometimes all-too brief, but their presence is quite effective. The films have built a world, and now we get to watch as the machinery set in place by the previous six films kicks into frightful motion.

There are new additions to the cast, too. Bill Nighy has a short stint as the Minister of Magic, which he plays with a severe, dour concern for the danger that threatens his society. Peter Mullan is excellent as Yaxley, an aggressive, seemingly powerful figure in Voldemort's Reich-like inner circle. Rhys Ifans has a few key moments as the father of Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch). He's scared almost into immobility, and Ifans is submerged into the costume and the role. His appearance also leads to a nicely animated sequence that acts as a sort of film within the film and which illustrates the history and nature of the titular Deathly Hallows.

The primary sour notes come in two sequences that both use a sort of deus ex machina. Readers of the books may feel that one or both of these is motivated by elements of the story buried way back in the films, or will be explained by things revealed in the final film. For me, these two sequences right towards the end of the film were resolved or motivated by mechanisms that felt very out of nowhere, and they clouded the otherwise enthralling spell the film had cast.

Previous films have often felt as if they were struggling to adapt the novels by JK Rowling. What to leave in, what to leave out, how to cram as much in as possible while still allowing scenes some bare room to breathe. A bit of breathing room has been something David Yates really brings to the past two chapters. While there are a great many characters and small magical bits to introduce and/or keep straight, this film has more breathing room than any prior.

That might not be superficially satisfying when looking at this installment as a standalone film. But looking at The Deathly Hallows, Part I as a standalone is patently absurd. It is both the seventh in the series and the first half of a larger final chapter. It may be a bit long, and the end trails off in a way that aspires to be The Empire Strikes Back but doesn't quite succeed. Yet film still transported me into the story's world and has me eager to experience the grand resolution to the conflict that will shortly come to a boil.

/Film score: 8 out of 10