BRIEF SYNOPSIS: As Voldemort gains control of the Ministry of Magic, Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione go into hiding in order to find the magic charms (Horcruxes) that will help them defeat Voldemort.
PROS: Very grim, often macabre elements not usually seen in the series; nearly seamless special effects; bittersweet realization that the series is finally drawing to a close.
CONS: Too long, with too many moments when the movie seems to come to a dead stop; often predictable; too many scenes reminiscent of other movies; and several of the leads look like they’ve stopped enjoying their roles two pictures ago.
And so we approach the end of Harry Potter’s bildungsroman. For most fans, I’m sure Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 will be somewhat bittersweet; for nearly a decade, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) have traversed the streets of Diagon Alley, dutifully studied their spells at Hogwarts, and played their fair share of Quidditch…and still managed to find the Philosopher’s Stone, unlock the Chamber of Secrets, and drink deeply from the Goblet of Fire. (They have also apprenticed under such fine actors as Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes.) Fans may revisit these moments, but the journey is finite, and is approaching its close.
Fans know the tales better than I; I stopped reading the books after the third entry, and have only enjoyed the movies intermittently. The first two, directed by Chris Columbus, were too faithful to their source material to have much life or personality. The next couple had moments of macabre delight in part because they strayed from their predecessors’ literalness but also felt curiously static; formula crushed the energy from them to the point that I skipped the fifth altogether. I did see the sixth, but cannot remember a single frame.
For all of that, our trio of Hogwarts dropouts is still with us. This time they have sought isolation to ensure that Voldemort (Fiennes), who has completed his ascent to power and has gained control of the Ministry of Magic, does not harm their family and friends. Harm, of course, comes during a wedding, and in a welcome change of pace from the rest of the series, Harry, Ron and Hermione, take refuge in London to figure out their next course of action. In an effort to find and destroy Voldemort’s existing Horcruxes (magical immortality talismans) they infiltrate the Ministry of Magic and, in a sequence too similar to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, make off with one before searching for the Sword of Godric Gryffindor, one of the only items that can destroy the Horcrux. (If you’re not confused then you’ve likely absorbed the novels into your DNA. It took me a while to figure out how this tied together.)
Their search takes them through various forests and charmed cities, and at this point the movie drags. A shame, because this is the point where the movie should hold most of its emotional weight. The three have just lost their mentors through death or alienation, they have pushed away their families to protect them, and so have nowhere to go and nobody to show them what to do next: an apt metaphor for wandering through the interzone between childhood and adulthood. But the aimlessness isn’t very interesting. Though I admire what writer Steven Kloves and director David Yates were trying to accomplish (and they certainly try), they dramatize it poorly. It doesn’t help that Radcliffe, Grint and Watson wear the same dour expressions throughout, as if they’ve studied under the Derek Zoolander Center for Children Who Can’t Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too.
Indeed, Yates’s direction presents other problems. Though he sets his shots well – the movie is nothing if not beautiful – he zips through the action without allowing the audience to absorb what they’ve seen (as in an early scene in which Harry and Hagrid (Robbie Coltraine) fly through London to avoid Deathseekers) and is often derivative. The opening action sequence veers into territory covered by Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black, and a chase through the forest near the movie’s climax smacks of the opening foot chase in Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace; for a brief moment, I was certain the projectionist had added a reel from The Bourne Sorcery. Yates is far from blameless; Kloves, working from J.K. Rowling’s novel, also incorporates with the wearer of the Horcruxes the same dis-ease that haunts Frodo and Gollum in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Better and more interesting are the scenes that allow Kloves to build suspense and set the movie’s tone. Near the beginning of the movie Voldemort plots the takeover of the Ministry of Magic with Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and others while suspending the tortured body of a teacher of Muggle Studies over a long table. (The scene is haunting and grim, and one of the most memorable of the movie. While I’m glad that this particular series has grown up with its audience, I must warn parents with young children that some of these sequences might be too intense. Use discretion when purchasing tickets.) But the most memorable scene comes in the form of a shadow puppet show of the story of the Deathly Hallows, a bit of animation that enlivens the entire movie for a few too brief minutes.
But the movie does pick up steam somewhere during its second hour, and then, too heavily weighted with story, lumbers to a halt. We are not surprised, for they had more story than they had movie, so needed to split it in half. This makes a complete review difficult, for we must wait six months to learn the conclusion. Fans I’m sure are already making plans to attend the first available screenings in July 2011. The rest of us could be forgiven for sitting it out.