9 years after “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” hit theaters, the beloved and lucrative franchise is finally rumbling to a close. Looking back, one can hardly believe that those early, breezy Chris Columbus-helmed adventures were part of the same series. As J.K. Rowling’s books did, the Harry Potter film series has twisted from pure, good-hearted fantasy entertainment to something more. While the decision to break the last adaptation into two installments made sense for the sake of both the studio’s finances and narrative clarity, it has also led to a curious thematic anomaly in “Deathly Hallows, Part 1.” The franchise has been progressively tackling more mature issues of responsibility, loyalty, mortality and sexual frustration, and most of those ideas receive their payoff here in the series’ most pensive entry yet. By cutting off halfway through the story, “Deathly Hallows, Part 1” provides us with the calm before the storm: the three protagonists are given a moment to work out their tensions and motivation before the clamor and confusion of the story’s finale drowns out all.
Which is not to say that this film is slow; we’re talking about a relative comparison here. Characters come and go at a fast, furious pace, and critical plot points are thrown out like machine gun fire. I can’t imagine how anyone who hasn’t read the books keeps up; but that’s always been true of this series to a point, and the films are far more useful at capturing the mood and spirit of the books than they are at providing strict adaptations. That has especially been true of the entries helmed by David Yates, who has served as director since the fifth film, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Yates has demonstrated a greater concern for the quality of the film over the quality of the adaptation – in “Order of the Phoenix” and “Half-Blood Prince,” a fair number of details from Rowling’s world were dropped in favor of innovative visual storytelling. Of course, given an entire two and a half hour film to spend on only half a book, this is probably Yates’ most faithful adaptation yet. This time, the biggest change the director has made to the story? He made it better.
Back in “Order of the Phoenix,” I was impressed by the deftness with which Yates handled the adolescent angst that made the book so excruciating; instead of going around shouting at everyone and pouting about how misunderstood he was, Harry’s brooding felt a bit more genuine. And I maintain that cutting out the sound during Sirius’ death, sparing us Daniel Radcliffe’s torturous attempts at sadness, was possibly the most brilliant single directing decision of the entire series. And again, here in “Deathly Hallows, Part 1,” Yates has taken one of Rowling’s worst moments and turned it into the film’s strength. Our heroes Harry, Ron and Hermoine have been forced out of the comfort of and safety of the confines of Hogwarts, ducking out on the run from the rising power of Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Their isolation and cluelessness as they stumble around looking for the remaining Horcruxes (can I just assume everyone has read the books and not explain all this? Thank you) played out in painful fashion in the books, devolving into incredibly repetitive arguments between the trio and some more false-note romantic drama.
Given the ability to visually place his characters inside vast, empty landscapes, Yates is able to more convey the alienation of three adventurers who by all appearances have been cut off from their adventure. There is a real sense that something important is happening out there, and these kids are missing it with their little camping trip. The frustration of feeling useless in the midst of such a critical confrontation must be overwhelming. Credit must be given here to Yates’ three main actors, who have collectively stepped up their game at the exact moment when they must. More than ever, these three are on their own, and their personal demons are front and center. The romantic chemistry between them (and between Radcliffe and Bonnie Wright, the actress playing Ginny Weasley) is still horrendously awkward, and a scene involving Harry and Hermoine dancing in the tent was ill-advised. But overall, the sequence is infinitely more watchable than I had anticipated.
As always, the supporting cast of superb British actors does the best they can and more with what they have, which this time around often means being on screen for about 10 seconds total. These people have thoroughly inhabited their roles; Imelda Staunton, for instance, reminds us of all the necessary backstory and character development for Dolores Umbridge in a single giggle. New additions include Bill Nighy as the short-lived Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour and Rhys Ifans as Luna Lovegood’s off-beat father Xenophilius; both have tragically limited roles but play them with the kind of aplomb we have come to expect from this series.
Can we just pause for a moment and consider the list of names that have passed through this series? All of the following actors have appeared in at least one Harry Potter film: besides Nighy, Ifans, and Staunton, we’ve had Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Isaacs, Timothy Spall, Brendan Gleeson, Natalia Tena, Frances de la Tour, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Simon McBurney, Miranda Richardson, John Cleese, Zoe Wanamaker, George Harris, Mark Williams, David Bradley, David Tennant, Shirley Henderson and Julie Christie, not to mention the host of talented young ‘uns the series has introduced (of whom Evanna Lynch, aka Luna Lovegood is probably my favorite). Casting director Fiona Weir seriously deserves some kind of medal for these movies.
On the technical front, cinematographer Eduardo Serra borrows effectively from the “Lord of the Rings” playbook and composer Alexandre Desplat has crafted an appropriately haunting, moody score around John Williams’ distinctive original theme. Serious props should also be given to a fantastic animated sequence used to give the backstory of the Deathly Hallows – a fitting, visually delightful little trick that I doubt any of the directors before Yates would’ve tried. This is the beginning of the end of Harry Potter on film, and from all appearances the filmmakers are ready to go out with a bang.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars