Harry Potter by way of Ingmar Bergman: Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is rich and vibrant, dark yet sensitive, and contains the most artistic merit of any of the series so far, topping even Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban.
But it’s also the most problematic and unsatisfying Potter film yet, creaking along at a funereal pace and then ending swiftly without paying off on two hours of setup; J.K. Rowling’s last novel has been split into two films, and while this one might fit in perfectly with the rest of the series (and its yet-to-be-seen mate) it suffers as a standalone film.
Deathly Hallows begins with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermoine (Emma Watson), and company in mourning following the death of a major character at the end of Half-Blood Prince. Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and the Death Eaters have assumed control of the Ministry of Magic and are out to kill Harry, who in turn is seeking to locate and destroy the magical Horcruxes, which Voldemort has used to obtain immortality.
The first third of the movie is the best, with Harry and friends racing against the Death Eaters, culminating in a daring raid on the Ministry of Magic that features some sly comedy and impressive art direction.
Opening scenes give us a grand overview of characters on both sides: Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), Bellatirx Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), Wormtail (Timothy Spall), and Draco (Tom Felton) and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) cower under the power of Voldemort as they do his bidding, while Mad Eye (Brendan Gleeson), Remus (David Thewlis), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), the Weasley family, and others aid Harry.
Unfortunately, almost all of these characters disappear during a plodding midsection that sees Harry, Ron, and Hermoine in hiding out in the woods. Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson are tasked with carrying the film alone here; the characters and their adolescent problems – so lovingly rendered in Half-Blood Prince – start to wear out their welcome.
The connect-the-dots screenplay – find this here, find that there, use this to accomplish that – fails to maintain story tension and Deathly Hallows starts to become a real drag. I’ve had the same plotting issue in almost every Potter film; at least this one leaves out the Scooby Doo-like unmasking of the villain at the end.
The rules governing magic powers – or lack thereof – is another issue I’ve had with the series, and it’s on full display here. These characters can literally do anything, but so many actions seem arbitrary, with no logic behind them, and I frequently find myself asking questions: why don’t they warp there? Why don’t they warp away? Why don’t they fly there/away? Why don’t they use a magic spell? Why is this magic spell stronger than the other one?
I’m sure all these questions were sufficiently answered somewhere (in the books, perhaps), but having seen all of the previous films, most of them multiple times, I still found myself lost regarding the rationale behind most of the decision-making here.
And then… Deathly Hallows just calls it quits. Moreso than Kill Bill or the Matrix sequels, this feels like half a movie, with a 2.5 hour runtime leading up to little more than a seven-month intermission. The finale mimics Half-Blood Prince, but comes off as a pale imitation; it’s thoroughly unsatisfactory.
The production, however, cannot be faulted: this is easily the best-looking of the series, with CGI creations like Doddy and Kreacher – distractions in previous films – now fully-realized characters. Director Yates even delivers a truly impressive animated rendering of the Story of the Three Brothers, a welcome bit of originality that hadn’t been attempted in previous entries.
The supporting cast does wonders whenever they’re around, with memorable new characters like Xenophilius Lovegood (Rhys Ifans as Luna’s father), Mundungus Fletcher (Andy Linden), a menacing Death Eater played by the always-menacing Peter Mullan, and welcome returns from characters like the wandmaker Ollivander (John Hurt), the goblin Griphook (Warwick Davis) and Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton).
Many of the familiar faces from Hogwarts are missed this time around, however, and major characters like Rickman’s Snape have surprisingly little screen time.
Deathly Hallows: Part 1 was planned for a 3D release, which was scrapped at the last minute; likely a wise choice, as the film is so dimly lit, and Eduardo Serra’s cinematography so dark, that it might barely register in notoriously desaturated 3D. Serra’s screen composition, on the other hand, is often breathtaking. Part 2, set for release next July, is due to bow in three dimensions.
Many were wary when Yates, then-unknown, was tapped to take over the series’ reigns, following in the footsteps of established directors Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, and Mike Newell.
Having completed three pictures with a fourth on the way, cementing his name in the Potter universe, it’s clear he was the right choice; even though I feel Order of the Phoenix and Deathly Hallows: Part 1 are the weakest of the series, Half-Blood Prince was the strongest and I have high hopes for the finale.