Apocalypse looms in Deathly Hallows: Part 1.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (Devonshire, Forest Glade, Lakeshore, Palace, SilverCity, Star)
PG ★★★ ½/5
What should have been the breathless first half of the Harry Potter finale wraps with the promise of a stirring exit, but David Yates’s initial navigation of the Deathly Hallows odyssey stalls.
The central problem with the adaptation, like all the other Harry Potter page-to-screen transformations, is the amount of material between the covers. They already had to split the final book into two parts because it was so chunky, and this cleavage is the first obstacle to overcome, because it means moviegoers will be deprived of the final payoff until next year, when Part Two hits theatres in July.
Since most people have already read the J.K. Rowling books, this won’t be a huge challenge, but it does mean the movie is forced to end in the middle of the actual story — just as Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) realizes a significant piece of his plan for total domination over both the magical and Muggle worlds.
Yes, the apocalypse looms in Deathly Hallows — easily the darkest piece of the Potter puzzle, as it conjures the everpresent spectre of fascism and forced conformity. This is the book where Voldemort, the vil- lainous mastermind, assumes control of the Ministry of Magic and begins a program of “bloodline cleansing,” in which those who are not “fullblooded” wizards and witches are persecuted and dehumanized — or worse.
Yates makes the most of Rowling’s creative revisit to Britain’s deeply inspiring warera reality, where selfishness was erased by the stiff-upper-- lip drive to unite, survive and transcend.
Intercutting the opening sequences between a meeting of Voldemort’s Death Eaters in the midst of a ceremonial kill, and images of a nervous Harry Potter holed up in the house at Privet Drive, Yates immediately places us in the midst of the war zone.
Looking up from the street of brick houses, Harry keeps his eyes on the skies, looking for Dementors and Death Eaters — the same way one might have watched for the dark shadow of a Messerschmitt aircraft.
Within minutes, there’s a fullfledged dogfight on brooms and magical motorbikes, as Potter makes a run for the Weasley cottage. The battle leaves scars and casualties, and, from this moment on, death sets the tone for everything that follows in these Deathly Hallows.
In any other kids-oriented movie, this could be a significant downer. However, Rowling has always been able to make the most of the melancholy she conjures with her story of an orphaned wizard. It’s Rowling’s comfort in the existential dimensions of youth that gives the whole series its dramatic edge, because it’s not afraid to address the dark, brooding, self-absorbed and dislocated side of growing up.
The truth is, very few people feel as if they truly belong to any specific group or community, and Harry Potter is the perfect example of the outsider seeking his place within the fold. That’s why we care about him, even when the character feels cold and aloof. Truly sympathizing with Harry is never easy, because it demands taking a faith-based stand and risking death — the way it does for all acolytes following a “chosen one.”
To ensure we do have people to snuggle up to, we have Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) — the young lovers who round Harry’s rough edges and highlight the immutable theme of genuine friendship.
The idea that a true friend will do anything for a trusted soulmate is one of the many elegant strands of human beauty that Rowling weaves through her heavy material. It’s also the only source of light in this otherwise pitch-black plot that features the whole world in the grip of war.
With a plate piled so high, it’s no surprise Yates has a hard time balancing the emotional and expositional parts of his task. This movie features more than one moment of headscratching abruptness, as Yates is forced to switch gears — frequently mid-scene — just to get all the bits and pieces in the frame.
This means we frequently cut to black and change narrative tracks as Yates builds one solid vignette after another, but fails to sew them into seamless order.
At times, I really wanted this movie to linger and pause, now that the cast, particularly Watson and Grint, have the ability to deliver layers of per- formance. All the actors are worth watching: Alan Rickman is the dark jewel as Professor Severus Snape, and Helena Bonham Carter (as Bellatrix Lestrange) is the circus clown who packs drama in the dark crevices of her (prosthetic) rotting teeth. Much of this thespian craftwork is sacrificed in the name of pacing and narrative, but it’s always there, and provides a solid foundation for the kinetic, and frequently scrambled, plot.
Deathly Hallows: Part One is probably the toughest of all the Potter films to date, because it can’t wrap up in one sitting, and it puts every character we care about at risk. Yates does a pretty good job with the heavy lifting, but there’s not much poetry to this exercise that brings the story of the boy wizard one step closer to its ultimate conclusion.