Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1

Cast:
Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter
Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley
Emma Watson as Hermione Granger
Alan Rickman as Severus Snape
Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort
Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange
Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid
Bill Nighy as Rufus Scrimgeour
James Phelps as Fred Weasley
Oliver Phelps as George Weasley
Mark Williams as Arthur Weasley
Domhnall Gleeson as Bill Weasley
Julie Walters as Molly Weasley
Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley
Brendan Gleeson as Alastor ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody
David Thewlis as Remus Lupin
George Harris as Kingsley Shacklebolt
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge
Toby Jones as Dobby
Simon McBurney as Kreacher
Andy Linden as Mundungus Fletcher
Clémence Poésy as Fleur Delacour
Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy
Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy
Helen McCrory as Narcissa Malfoy
Rhys Ifans as Xenophilius Lovegood
Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood
Hazel Douglas as Bathilda Bagshot
Timothy Spall as Wormtail
Peter Mullan as Yaxley
Warwick Davis as Griphook
John Hurt as Ollivander
Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore

Review:
Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is dead, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is on the rise and only 17-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) knows how to defeat him, if he can survive long enough to do anything about it.

It’s been a long time coming – 9 years of films and another 5 of novels – but the end of the “Harry Potter” saga is now right around the corner. All secrets will theoretically be revealed and questions answered including the biggest question of all: are the final two films the promised grand finale, or more of a finally?

The answer is… somewhere in between.

With two other Potter films under his belt, director David Yates has gone from the new kid on the block to the most experienced of “Potter” helmers, just in time to put his hard-earned talents to work wrapping up the decade’s largest film series.

Yates’ particular skill set has always been something of a question-mark where the “Potter” franchise is concerned; a long-time BBC veteran, he always seemed more comfortable with verisimilitude than whimsy, trying hard to ground the “Potter” world in a certain amount of emotional and even physical reality. Normally this is a good thing as it makes the fantasy go down easier, but only if you’re equally comfortable with the fantasy. Yates has never seemed to be, often choking on the more far-fetched portions of the series, unable to summon up the charm which had been the series hallmark.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” gives him a pass in that regard then, as the stark seriousness of the struggle finally replaces the light-hearted schoolboy fantasy of the previous films, and allows Yates to shrug off much of the whimsy that had been causing him so much trouble in his earlier efforts. How much of an improvement this is depends entirely on how much you thought the previous installments were too serious, or not serious enough.

Certainly the series has never looked more a part of our world. Yates and cinematographer Eduardo Serra (“Defiance”) have shot their film largely on location with shaky handheld cameras, reflecting the travails of Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) as they give up the staid halls of Hogwarts to traipse across the English countryside, trying to hide from Voldemort’s forces and come up with a plan to vanquish him.

Which unfortunately is as slow as it sounds, producing one of “Deathly Hallows’” major pitfalls, extremely uneven pacing. The producers’ decision to split the final book into two films has given Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves free reign to include almost all of the book in the film version. That may not initially sound like a downside, but one of the strengths of the film adaptation actually is its brevity. An inability to include every beat and moment can force a filmmaker to find the essence of his or her source material, bringing the best out of a novel. That can backfire, of course, but with those restrictions repealed it’s all too easy to go too far in the other direction – putting in every single period and comma without regard for how much that level of fidelity actually helps the finished product.

“Deathly Hallows – Part 1″ isn’t quite that bad–it’s not the slavish replication the first two “Harry Potter” films were–but it often has too much time on its hands and Yates isn’t always sure what to do with it. He opens quickly with an exciting escape from Harry’s longtime suburban home (now symbolically emptied as his relatives have gone into hiding), making it clear how serious the danger the characters are facing is. School is out and Harry and his faithful friends quickly learn how dark the adult world can be.

The action sequences are where Yates takes on the “Harry Potter” world shine the best as he blends real world danger and consequences with author J.K. Rowling’s whimsical world in a fusion of pre-adolescent fantasy and young adult adventure. Harry and Co.’s infiltration of the corrupt Ministry of Magic is a particular stand-out, but all of the adventure aspects of the film work, particular as Yates takes advantage of the situation’s dark tone to play up the effects these dangers are having on our young heroes.

In so doing, however, not only has he jettisoned much of the easy charm that made the best films of the series work but he’s also made portions of it likely inaccessible for the series’ youngest fans. And not just because of the intensity of some of the sequences–particular an encounter with a pitch-perfect Helena Bonham Carter as Voldemort’s right-hand woman–but also the quieter, introspective moments which often deal with more adult themes that will probably leave younger fans mystified if not outright bored.

While original fans of the books were able to grow up along with the main characters as the original stories were being written, the changes in the stories symbiotically reflected in the audience’s own growth in experience, with the series itself now mostly over and available to be taken in in one go there are now young fans who have gone all the way through the series without the corresponding time lag between installments to cushion the changes in tone. Yates has never seemed to be that keen on keeping the latter films open to the younger set–a tall order to begin with considering the subject matter–and the areas where he’s tried always tended to ring hollow. Thanks to “Deathly Hallows’” themes of crossing the final line into adulthood, he no longer has to spend time doing something he didn’t ever seem comfortable doing, but he’s also leaving little to offer anyone under the age of 13.

And that’s a greater loss than at first blush it might seem. Sure, the latter part of the series has to be about leaving the things of childhood behind, seeing as how the story was at its heart a bildungsroman, but Yates and company have left behind a lot of “Harry Potter’s” magic along the way and in a film about wizards and witches that’s a steep price to pay. The result is something uneven not just in pacing but in tone–bobbing between dark and … less dark–and leading to incongruous sequences like squeaky, put-upon house elf Dobby (Toby Jones) arriving to stop Hermione from being maimed.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1″ is still the best of the “Harry Potter” films Yates has yet directed, and better than early Chris Columbus films as well, offering up all of the advertised thrills, chills and escapes and frequently going even further, becoming genuinely effecting. The young actors are old enough now to make real hay out of adult situations they can finally take part in (like a perceived long triangle which could break up the friends just when they need each other most) and because they spend so much time alone wandering the countryside its a lot easier to ignore the fact they tend to be overshadowed by their supporting co-stars.

For all that it does right, however, “Deathly Hallows” ultimately feels incomplete, and not just because it has no ending. The slow pace of much of the middle and a lack of rising tension are real problems that can distract you from some fantastic set pieces and strong character development. It’s possible this is just a problem of context, that once both “Deathly Hallows” films are out, they’ll flow together organically, although that also means eventually sitting through a five hour “Harry Potter” film to find out.

Still, if this is the best “Potter” Yates can give us, and it certainly feels that way, it’s not too bad, often effecting and only rarely tedious. If it’s not the fantastic send off some may have wanted, it’s not a failure either, offering up most of what has made the series work so well in the past with such craftsmanship and sureity you can almost overlook the lack of charm.

Now if they could just cut thirty minutes out of it.

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