Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

In theaters.

I’ve heard numerous people snidely describe Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final installment of the Harry Potter series, as one long chase scene, but that description actually implies more sustained intensity than either the book or the movie (at least Part 1) actually has. Sure, there are suspenseful sequences, but most of the time, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are neither chasing anyone nor being chased themselves. Instead, they’re in hiding, bickering endlessly as they wander about the wilds of Britain. 

That fitful pacing, with its odd spasms and drifts, didn’t bother me much on the page, but it’s glaringly, hilariously obvious on screen. All the beautiful, extended landscape shots just reinforce how little is going on, and the squabbles among the central trio feel overdone and melodramatic, to put it mildly. This is not a movie that could stand on its own without the full weight of the series behind it—but then again, it doesn’t have to be. As a vehicle for cameos from alumni of the previous films, it works well enough, and screenwriter Steve Kloves adroitly sets up the final showdown of Part 2. Even those long landscape shots, extraneous though they might be, truly are beautiful.

More than anything, though, Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is an opportunity to re-experience the book and showcase the young actors who have improved so much over the course of the series. If you’re a sentimental enough fan to appreciate it on those grounds, you’ll probably like it. If you’re not, you won’t. And if you’re somehow not familiar with the series (who are you?), you won’t get anything out of it at all. (Incidentally, because I am incredulous of the idea that someone could be both interested in this movie and ignorant of its source material, I’m going to discuss what would, in another situation, be considered spoilers. Recently awakened coma patients, consider yourself warned!)

Deathly Hallows opens on a grim situation and only gets grimmer. Dumbledore is dead, and Voldemort and his followers have been terrorizing the magical community. When the Death Eaters seize control of the Ministry of Magic in a coup, they also strike Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour’s wedding, which is attended, of course, by numerous members of the Order of the Phoenix and the Boy Who Lived himself. Hermione (Emma Watson) manages to whisk Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ron (Rupert Grint) away from the mayhem—along with a well-supplied pack she’d prepared for just such a contingency—but once safe, the trio isn’t sure what to do next. Before his death, Dumbledore had charged Harry with destroying Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes, which safeguard the evil wizard’s immortality, but neither Harry nor his friends know where to find those items. When they do manage to track one down, they don’t know how to destroy it and must carry the soul-destroying locket around with them.

The odd thing about Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s story is that much more interesting action is going on elsewhere. The Ministry of Magic quickly becomes an Orwellian nightmare, the Weasley twins go into hiding and host a pirate radio show in support of the resistance, and back at Hogwarts, Neville revives Dumbledore’s Army to fight back against the Death Eaters controlling the school.* Harry, Hermione, and Ron, by contrast, are on an extended camping trip. In the book, author J. K. Rowling works with that, probing at how the trio’s awareness of the great danger their loved ones are in—while they themselves are comparatively safe and inactive—affects their morale, but that kind of psychological tribulation doesn’t translate well onto screen.

Kloves apparently decided that a love triangle could fill the space. When under the sway of the One Ring Horcrux, Ron nurses the suspicion that Harry and Hermione are secretly involved, but in the book, at least, this clearly is all in Ron’s head, born on his own longstanding insecurity and the Horcrux’s corruptive influence. The filmmakers, on the other hand, seem determined to press the issue, never deviating from the letter of the canon but constantly highlighting little looks and moments between Harry and Hermione, culminating in a weirdly charged dance between the two after Ron has stormed off. None of this goes anywhere, but it gives everything a strange little edge, especially since Ginny Weasley, Harry’s own quasi-girlfriend and Ron’s sister, is never mentioned through all of this angst. The whole thing is ill-advised (and Ron’s Horcrux hallucination of a naked, heavily CGI’d Harry and Hermione in a passionate embrace is just squicky, with a weirdly incestuous vibe—ugh), but it might have worked, sort of, if the movie had given more substance to the romantic conflict instead of just teasing it. I’m all for subtext, but when you’re this heavy-handed, it looks like you simply didn’t have the guts to make it text.

That being said, the angsty mess does give the trio of actors the opportunity to show how much they’ve grown since the tiresome, slapsticky days of The Sorcerer’s Stone. Grint’s broad, friendly face curdles convincingly as he channels his inner tormented hobbit, and Radcliffe’s frayed, frustrated Harry feels more like an Everyman than a mythical hero. (I mean that as a compliment.) Watson is the strongest, delicately showing us the cracks in Hermione’s poise. Her opening scene, in which Hermione Obliviates her Muggle parents’ memory of her in an effort to protect them, is a wordless heartbreaker.

The adults, of course, are the real treat. (The Harry Potter series’s employment of virtually every great character actor in Britain never ceases to delight me.) Ralph Fiennes gets more and more serpentine in his delectably creepy performance as Voldemort, and Helena Bonham Carter pushes Bellatrix from wacky mania to true menace with her deeply unsettling, hands-on torture of Hermione. Imelda Staunton perfectly embodies Dolores Umbridge’s chirpy, prim sadism, and Rhys Ifans gives the pitiful, desperate Xenophilius Lovegood real pathos as Harry, Hermione, and Ron belatedly realize why he’s so on edge. My favorite will always be Alan Rickman, though, here as compelling as ever in Severus Snape’s one brief scene. I can’t wait to see what he does with the meatier material in the second half of Deathly Hallows.

For I suppose I will see Part 2. I haven’t bothered with all of the Harry Potter movies, but director David Yates and his team won me over with Half-Blood Prince, which made beautiful use of color and light and shadow, creating a few richly dramatic scenes that I still readily recall in my mind’s eye. Deathly Hallows, Part 1 has much of the same power. I already mentioned the gorgeous landscapes, but it’s not just that. The opening sequence—in which Harry, Hermione, and Ron each steel themselves for what’s to come—is strikingly composed, resonant with portent and blossoming maturity, and the action scenes (few and far between though they may be) are tense and well choreographed. Best of all is the animated sequence that relates the Tale of the Three Brothers. With economical shadow-puppet imagery, animator Ben Hibon finds an exquisitely eerie way to evoke the darkness in the ostensible children’s story. Whoever hit upon the idea of hiring him to bring that crucial element of the book to life is a genius.

And whoever decided to end Part 1 with Dobby’s death was similarly inspired. Rowling generally eschews grand death scenes—a decision I admire—but she makes an exception for the proud, loyal house elf, granting him what might be the one classically heroic end in the entire series: knowingly sacrificing his life for his friends and then dying, comforted, in Harry’s arms. It’s a wrenching turn of events, and Yates plays the moment for all it’s worth. No doubt he benefits from the residue of emotion from the book (that chapter was a true tear-jerker), but still: a bloodied Harry clutching the broken little body against the backdrop of a desolate beach, Hermione and Ron united in shock, Luna gently suggesting that Harry close Dobby’s eyes. I’m not made of stone. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 might meander for most of its running length, but it lands a devastating strong ending.

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*If J. K. Rowling simply can’t stop herself from returning to Harry Potter’s world, I think she should write about that seventh year at Hogwarts—the one Harry, Hermione, and Ron skip—with Neville as the central character. The horror of Hogwarts under Death Eater rule obviously would provide abundant material, but more than that, I think Neville deserves his own book. Every now and then, you hear someone complaining about the Harry Potter series because of the whole Chosen One thing—how undemocratic it is, what a bad message that is for kids—which mystifies me because I think Rowling complicates that old trope quite well. The prophecy that led to Voldemort’s fateful attack on the infant Harry was ambiguous: as Dumbledore later points out, Trewlawney’s words could have referred to either Harry Potter or Neville Longbottom. In fact, there’s nothing about Harry that makes him a particularly strong adversary for the Dark Lord. “Chosen” not by destiny but dumb chance, he is not born a hero; he becomes one. But so, crucially, does Neville. Neville leads Dumbledore’s Army in Harry’s absence, he endures intimidation and torture, and at the pivotal moment, when hope seems lost, he defies Voldemort, pulls Godric’s Sword from the burning Sorting Hat, and kills Nagini, the last Horcrux, ending the Dark Lord’s invincibility forever. Overlooked and Unchosen, Neville nonetheless is just as much an heir of Gryffindor as Harry, and that deserves more notice. So say I. End rant.