Film Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

The 'Harry Potter' series draws to a close with the action-packed but dramatically clunky first half of the two-part finale.

By almost any conceivable metric, the Harry Potter film franchise has to rank as one of the biggest cinematic success stories of the past decade. From a financial standpoint alone, the series—which, of course, is based on J.K. Rowling’s equally lucrative line of books—is one for the history books: Each of the six films made to date has grossed about or above $800 million worldwide, for a staggering combined total of $5.4 billion. But the movies have their aesthetic pleasures as well, not the least of which has been the opportunity to watch its cast—specifically the three leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson—literally grow up before our eyes, transforming from wide-eyed kids to world-weary young adults. In that way, the Harry Potter films are akin to Michael Apted’s marvelous Up documentary series, albeit with the box-office-friendly addition of wizards and wands.

It’s also been fascinating to watch the films themselves mature alongside the actors, as Chris Columbus’ overstuffed whirligig blockbusters gave way to Alfonso Cuarón’s understated flair for fantasy followed by Mike Newell’s action movie heroics and, currently, David Yates’ darker, moodier episodes. And let’s not forget the evolution of the screenplays as well, all but one of which have been penned by Steve Kloves. In his first two outings, Kloves tried too hard to find room for every incident chronicled in the books, which resulted in bloated, choppy movies. But around the time of the third film, he grew more confident about departing from Rowling’s texts, and the pacing of his subsequent scripts improved tremendously. (Although it’s worth pointing out that installments like Prisoner of Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince are the least-favorite adaptations of some Potter fans because they feel that too much has been omitted or altered.)

Had they really put their minds to it, Yates and Kloves probably could have streamlined the more than 700-page final installment in the Potter series into a single film. But the financial lure of a longer goodbye was too much to resist, so instead we get the awkwardly titled Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, which presents the first half of Harry Potter’s final adventure, with the second and concluding chapter to follow next summer. Where we last left off, the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) was ascendant, the virtuous Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) was dead, his murderer Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) was firmly on the dark side (or was he…?) and the rest of the wizarding world—from villains like Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) to heroes like Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and Nymphadora Tonks (Natalia Tena)—was preparing for another great war. If any of these names are unfamiliar to you, you might want to consider renting at least one of the previous films before buying a ticket to this one, because there’s no recap for the uninitiated.

As for the intrepid trio of Harry (Radcliffe), Ron (Grint) and Hermione (Watson), they chose to ditch their final year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in order to search for the magical talismans called Horcruxes that are giving Voldemort his power. If those objects are found and destroyed, so too will He Who Must Not Be Named. Deathly Hallows Part 1 continues their quest, taking them from the bowels of the Ministry of Magic to the wide-open spaces of the English countryside and from the village where Harry’s parents lay buried to a dungeon in Malfoy Mansion. Meanwhile, Voldemort and his followers continue to amass power, seizing control of the Ministry and launching a campaign to reassert their authority over both the magical and Muggle—that’s “human” for those of you who don’t speak Wizard—realms.

From a production standpoint, the first half of Deathly Hallows offers the same high standard of big-budget spectacle that we’ve come to expect from the Potter series. While Hogwarts isn’t glimpsed in the film (you’ll have to wait for Part 2 to see those familiar spires again), the crew has constructed terrific sets for other magical environments like the Ministry of Magic, and Yates also makes good use of real locations, staging scenes on the teeming streets of London as well as in the remote Scottish highlands. He’s become a more confident director of action too, choreographing an exciting opening chase—which features the death of a significant character, the first of several to come—followed by at least three other large-scale, special-effects-laden sequences, including the film’s centerpiece, Harry, Ron and Hermione’s daring raid on the Ministry that recalls an episode of Mission: Impossible, complete with the trio temporarily donning false faces (courtesy of a magic spell, rather than latex masks, of course). Scenes like that one certainly bode well for the next film, which will feature some of the biggest set-pieces of the entire series.

At the same time, though, the decision to super-size the finale works against Deathly Hallows as a piece of dramatic storytelling. Kloves and Yates always faced a challenge adapting this particular book (which, for this reader at least, remains one of the series’ weaker installments) because Rowling’s plotting is haphazard, to say the least. While the novel opens and closes with a bang, the middle section is shapeless and often deathly dull, as the central trio spends long stretches hiding out in a tent in the middle of nowhere, sidelined from the action. Much of that material could have pared down in the film version, but Yates and Kloves unwisely opt to keep it in, along with a number of other minor scenes and references to secondary characters that may delight fans of the book but don’t contribute anything substantial to the film’s storyline.

Unlike other movies that end on cliffhangers—like, say, The Empire Strikes Back or The Two TowersDeathly Hallows Part 1 never develops its own specific narrative arc. It’s content to be half a movie, treating moviegoers to an excessive 146 minutes of set-up for a resolution they’ll have to wait another eight months to see. The legions of Potter faithful likely won’t mind, as that’s another two-and-a- half hours they’ll be able to spend in the company of Harry and his pals. (And, to be fair, the series’ young stars have been great fun to spend time with these past ten years; they may be limited as actors, but they absolutely own these characters.) As hard as it can be to part ways with a good friend, Deathly Hallows Part 1 effectively illustrates the downside of a protracted farewell.