It might be hard for someone unfamiliar with the Harry Potter universe to catch the nuances of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1. Fortunately, the larger themes are intact, despite some liberties taken with the chronology of the books and the usual necessity of streamlining a richly plotted novel into a workable screenplay. Ably directed by David Yates in this, his third Potter film (and he’s also directed part 2, due out in 2011), from a script from the series veteran screenwriter, Steve Kloves, this installment brings the story more firmly into the adult world. It also emphasizes the battle between good and evil over the magical pyrotechnics attendant upon it. Evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the arch fiend of the piece, may be feeding his enemies to his pet snake, but the real evil is the fascist regime he is installing, and that people are embracing, at he Ministry of Magic and at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft.
The genius of why this film, like the book, resonates so deeply is that Rowling has found the perfect junction of pure fantasy and real politics gone horribly wrong, both of which evoke strong emotions. The pamphlets, warning the public about the dangers of mixing Muggle blood with the purer Magical blood, have a cover that is pure German Expressionism of the 1920s and 30s. The interrogation by the creepily buoyant Dolores Umbrage (Imelda Staunton) of a mudblood, the magical offspring of Muggle parents, is a painful parody of that used by Nazis interrogating those suspected of having inferior genes.
The best scene in the film is that which finds the three at the deserted headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. The desolation of abandonment of both building and people externalized in a sly shot that diminishes both is size and sets the perspective, so that it all seems to be disappearing into the distance as one of them intones with wonder and alarm that they are now really all alone. No parents, to authorities, and no safe haven, even there.
It’s the spirit that runs through the film as the three take in on the lam with only the scratchy sounds of a dim radio broadcast to keep them informed of what’s happening in the larger world. Landscapes broad and as bleak as the mood fill the screen, overwhelming the viewer as the situation overwhelms Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson).
The audience, like Harry, has become accustomed to wizarding. The story moves on to more pressing issues. We’ve come to expect dazzling special effects, and once again the series delivers. The most evocative being not with the swirling smokiness of diving Deatheaters, nor with the wand-lightning duels, nor even with the disappearance of Fiennes’ nose as the reptilian Voldemort, but rather with a retelling of the story of the titular Hallows themselves, rendered into a superbly crafted facsimile of sophisticated shadow puppets that heighten the emotions of the story and of the teller, a poignantly victimized Xenophilius Lovegood (Rhys Ifans), and of the listeners with its pared down presentation. We’ve come to expect thrilling action sequences, and once again, the series deliver that, too, though it is the more subtle uses that create more suspense. What has made the series special is that it is also so very human, and it has grown as the children themselves have grown. The innocence of childhood giving way to the headstrong confusion of adolescent hormones underscoring and even informing the larger conflict.
Grint, again, is the best touchstone in all of this. Without Harry’s resolve, or Hermione’s brilliance, he is the heart of the operation, though a heart that is all too tender. During an impromptu piano duet between Ron and Hermione, Grint zeroes in on the overwhelming rush of joy at being so near the object of his affection with the authenticity of a 17-year-old with no clue about what to do next. The air of absolute indifference broken with a quick, shy glance at Watson that speaks volumes about the enormous, scary passion that only a boy of that age can feel. Watson is flinty, tough, but showing a vulnerability that makes her prickly personality endearing rather than off-putting. Radcliffe is, as always, stalwart, as the grim-faced hero who has earned his grimness through six years of wizarding training at Hogwarts, each of which became a life-and-death contest with his nemesis, Voldemort, in one guise or another. The script allows for a respite though, during the sojourn in the wilderness, as Harry invites Hermione to dance in the tent that shelters them. The tenderness of comraderie balancing a tense sexuality borne of loneliness and confusion.
Vivid actors pop up in parts that vacillate between large and small in each film, leaving the audience wanting more of them, a source of not inconsiderable frustration. Topping that list is Alan Rickman as the Snape, the snaky potions professor who is last seen, all to briefly at the beginning, throwing in his lot with Voldemort. Helena Bonham Carter playing Voldemort’s acolyte Bellatrix as wild-eyed maenad, Peter Mullan oozing cool if gleeful malevolence as a Ministry functionary more than delighted to terrorize everyone. Short shrift is paid to the denizens of Hogwarts, and Hogwarts itself, for that matter, but the deceased headmaster of the place, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), is still a presence to be reckoned with even in flashback. Don’t discount the CGI characters, either, particularly Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones), a rubbery house elf with floppy ears, haunted eyes, and a pivotal part in the drama that becomes an emotional catharsis for the audience.
At over 2 ½ hours, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1, never drags, and barely pauses as it races along, including as much action and plot as it can squeeze into its running time before finding the perfect moment, and a truly inspired image, to resolve into a cliffhanger. The only flaw is keeping us waiting for the rest of the story. Even those who know how it turns out from reading the books.