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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 -- Film Review

2:00 PM PST 11/11/2010 by Todd McCarthy

The long goodbye for the most successful film series of the century thus far begins with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, the darkest and least characteristic of the batch. Gone are Hogwarts and the sense of security that went with it, gone is any of the joy of youth, gone is more than just a measure or two of John Williams' original music. With Harry, Ron and Hermione left largely to their own devices on often forbidding terrain, this grim beginning-of-the-end odyssey has a very different feel from any of its predecessors -- a development slightly more disconcerting than it is welcome. That this holiday release will be a huge international attraction is beyond question, even if the real fireworks mostly await the finale's second installment, which arrives July 15.

Perhaps the most pertinent question surrounding the way in which J.K. Rowling's exceptionally intricate epic is being concluded onscreen is whether dividing the final book into two films was justified artistically or only financially. After all, the longest volume in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, became the shortest film, and parts of the long midsection of Deathly Hallows-- when the kids sulk in the wild, not knowing what to do next -- easily could have been abridged.

More than even the most faithful of the earlier episodes, this film feels devoted above all to reproducing the novel onscreen as closely as possible, an impulse that drags it toward ponderousness at times and rather sorely tests the abilities of the young actors to hold the screen entirely on their own, without being propped up by the ever-fabulous array of character actors the series offers.

Arguing in favor of the extensive treatment is the fact that in Deathly Hallows, screenwriter Steve Kloves must pull together multiple story strands and dozens of characters that, as especially will be the case in Part 2, date back to the series' prepubescent days. To cram the essentials covered in Part 1 and to do justice to the climaxes that await would represent a very tall order for a single conventional-length film. So it seems reasonable enough to say why not do it all, shoot the works, show every scene millions of readers want to see, give every character his or her proper curtain call, be expansive rather than constrained? In this case, probably better a bit too much -- even a dull scene here and there -- than not enough.

Deathly Hallows opens boldly. "These are dark times, there's no denying," intones Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy, just now joining the series) in intense close-up, acknowledging the fact that archvillian Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his Death Eaters, having dispatched Dumbledore at the end of the previous installment, are on the verge of a complete takeover. For his part, Voldemort has gathered his minions to stress that it falls to him and no one else to kill Harry Potter, who must be hunted down at once.

Knowing his peril, Harry moves his immediate family (providing brief encores for Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw and Harry Melling) out of Privet Drive. But, sensing danger, Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson, fun to have back) insists upon replicating Harry sevenfold so that the Death Eaters won't know which is the real one when they come after him -- which they promptly do in a spectacular nocturnal airborne chase that ends up at the Weasleys' isolated home for a furtive wedding.

As anyone who has followed the yarn in print or onscreen will know, Harry's only hope of stopping Voldemort lies in his finding and destroying the Horcruxes that represent portions of the Dark Lord's pestilential soul. Inscrutable clues have been left behind by Dumbledore, but an encounter with former house elves Kreacher and Dobby -- themselves not seen in some time -- reveals that one Horcrux is in the possession of the students' former tormenter, the pint-sized lady in pink, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton).

The film's most engaging sustained interlude involves the kids' risky visit to the Ministry of Magic, where Umbridge works as a judge now that the goon squad has taken over. Transforming themselves physically into the bodies of minor wizards, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) sneak about in a bureaucracy strewn with posters branding Harry "Undesirable #1" and so rife with threat and fear that Dr. Goebbels himself would have approved.

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Then follows the long spell in the wilderness, the bleakness of which is alleviated only by a small satchel of Hermione's that rivals that of Mary Poppins for its bottomlessness and by a dance to radio music that Harry and Hermione briefly enjoy after Ron bolts in a huff. The duration of this stretch, which sees the protagonists reach their lowest ebb of despair, might have been justified were the actors capable of suggesting more subtext and nuance to express the cumulative emotion of their long struggle. We get the idea, but there's not enough going on moment to moment to stymie the urge to fast-forward.

But once Ron returns and they're able to destroy the Horcrux, leaving three more to go, they visit their friend Luna Lovegood's haunted father Xenophilius (Rhys Ifans), the upshot of which is a beguiling animated sequence that illustrates -- not a moment too soon -- what the Deathly Hallows are.

The friends are eventually captured and hauled into Malfoy Manor, where the maniacal Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, as entirely captivated by the role as ever) would gladly finish them all off if not for the constraints imposed by the Dark Lord. The ending is not exactly a cliffhanger but, rather, an unambiguous promise of escalated mayhem to come in July.

With two previous Potter episodes under his directorial belt, anointed series finisher David Yates certainly knows what's called for at this point but still doesn't betray a special knack for inspired screen fantasy; it's fair to say that, among Potter directors, he occupies a reliable, prosaic middle ground between the indulgent obviousness of Chris Columbus in the first two and the vibrant work of Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell on entries 3 and 4, respectively.

The marvelous technical wizardry on display can come as no surprise at this point; it seems to get better with each installment. Composer Alexandre Desplat makes his Potter debut with a turbulent, emotional score that borrows from the original theme-setting Williams only to musically identify Harry's owl Hedwig on its brief appearance.

Notwithstanding that Harry Potter is not even 18 years old when Deathly Hallows begins, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and especially Rupert Grint look very grown-up now, the series having taken nine years to make rather than the seven that elapse across the span of the story. Most of the prime supporting players are allowed only a scene or two here, and their comparative absence is felt; it can only be hoped that at least some of them will be afforded final moments to shine in the follow-up.

Opens: Friday, Nov. 19 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Heydey Films.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, John Hurt, Rhys Ifans, Jason Isaacs, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, David Thewlis, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, Toby Jones, David Legeno, Simon McBurney, Helen McCrory, Nick Moran, Peter Mullen, David O'Hara, Clemence Poesy, Natalia Tena, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, Bonnie Wright.
Director: David Yates
Screenwriter: Steve Kloves
Based on the novel by: J.K. Rowling
Producers: David Heyman, David Barron, J.K Rowling
Executive Producer: Lionel Wigram
Director of photography: Eduardo Serra
Production Designer: Stuart Craig
Editor: Mark Day
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Rated PG-13, 146 minutes