The series has done a great job of becoming gradually darker and more mature over the years, changing from quidditch games and talking hats to a world full of real danger, where dark forces are ascendant and people are dropping like flies. The film begins with Hermione (Emma Watson) performing a forgetting spell on her parents, erasing all evidence of herself from their lives in order to keep them safe from the wizarding world’s civil war. It’s truly harrowing stuff that sets the tone for the rest of the film.
After the death of Harry’s mentor, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), during a fight with the Death Eaters at the end of the previous film, the entire magical world is aware that the sinister Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes in serpentine makeup) has returned, and war has begun. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione and Ron (Rupert Grint) have readied for the worst, but Voldemort doesn’t just want to kill Harry. He has quietly taken over the Ministry of Magic and instituted a reign of terror that aims to weed out the pure-blooded wizards from the half-bloods and the Muggles, or regular people.
Dumbledore left Harry with a quest. Harry is to find and destroy the horcruxes, pieces of Voldemort’s shattered soul that he has hidden outside his body in various magical objects in an effort to ensure himself immortality. But Harry doesn’t know where any of the horcruxes are and has only a vague idea of how to destroy them if he finds them.
One thing I’ve always enjoyed about the series is how it handles the trials and tribulations of adolescence when it isn’t dealing with monsters and magic. In between all the big plots, we see a fairly realistic depiction of normal adolescent problems, as Harry goes through puberty, starts worrying about girls and becomes an angry, insufferable prat for a while.
Here, all the problems of the end of a person’s teenage years are on display. We all discover at some point that our parents or idols are real, fallible people and don’t necessarily line up with the childhood image we had of them. In this installment, Harry discovers that he may not have known Dumbledore as well as he thought he did, and Dumbledore might not have been as all-knowing and perfect as he seemed to be.
Harry and his friends are out in the world alone now, without adult supervision. They can no longer rely on the comforts of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or the guidance of their teachers. Ready or not, they’re in the adult world now. They must rely on their own wit and skill, and can turn only to each other. And the events of the film seriously test those relationships, as long-simmering resentments and rivalries can prove to be as daunting as the Death Eaters.
The film was directed by David Yates, who helmed the fifth and sixth entries in the series and will direct the final one as well. Visually, the film is gorgeous. Yates and production designer Stuart Craig have given the movie a somber palette of blacks, grays and blues, and use beautiful shots of the various heaths and woods where the three main characters hide out. The film is never shy in making the connection between Voldemort’s totalitarian regime and Nazi Germany, and the connection is never more explicit than in the vaguely fascistic Ministry of Magic building, and the anti-Muggle pamphlets being printed there.
Ben Hibon also deserves credit for directing the atmospheric seven-minute animated sequence that details the history of the titular Deathly Hallows, three magical objects that, when combined, will make their owner the master of death. It’s little wonder that Voldemort wants them.
After the round robin of directors who made the first four films, Yates has given the back half of the series a nice consistency. The story heavily features both gigantic set pieces, such as a raid on the Ministry offices, and long scenes of introspection, and Yates proves adept at both of them. He makes the movie much sadder and slower in parts than one would expect a gigantic film like this to be, but never makes it too grim or leaden.
I was curious how the film would handle the long stretch during which Harry and his friends are essentially hiding in the woods, aimless and bereft, as they have little idea where to go or what to do next. This section could be sprinted through with a montage—after all, in a movie with so much plot, who has time for a long dark night of the soul? But Yates finds a nice middle ground, letting these scenes weigh on the characters without stopping the movie in its tracks. Screenwriter Steve Kloves even manages to include a poetic, melancholy little scene in which Harry and Hermione try to cheer each other up by having a bittersweet dance to Nick Cave’s song “O Children.” This section of the film gets the job done, even though nothing really gets the point across like 100 pages with almost no action.
Kloves has scripted all the films except for Order of the Phoenix, and he does his normal good job of squashing the book down to manageable form while still making it comprehensible. He also manages to keep the characters as human as possible, showing us how supposed villains, such as Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), may have realized that they made grave mistakes in throwing their lot in with Voldemort but can’t back out now.
The film is, as always, teeming with an absurdly talented supporting cast full of the finest actors Great Britain has to offer (Brendan Gleeson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, John Hurt, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall and Imelda Staunton, just to name a few, along with newcomers Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans). But with Harry and his friends on the run and alone, the film intriguingly focuses on the younger members of the cast. We have watched these kids mature over the last several years, and it has become obvious that they have all become fine actors. Watson in particular displays a flinty strength and preternatural poise as Hermione, and she has good chemistry with Grint. It’s in the core relationships between Harry, Hermione and Ron that the film excels the most.
Try as they might, the filmmakers can’t quite escape the Part 1 in the title. The movie obviously just ends in the middle, leaving us to wait for the final installment, which comes out next July. But Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 gives us enough arresting visuals, suspense and dark emotion to keep us going until then.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.