Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows : Part 1 is a tremendous opening half to the climactic stages of this mighty saga, offering a hugely satisfactory blockbusting watch. Following on from last year’s equally impressive The Half Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is a moody, eerie and unsettling slice of cinema, wonderfully depicting the quiet before what is sure to be a frightening storm. Taking the Potter saga in a direction of almost unrelenting darkness, filmmaker David Yates has cooked up both a visual and dramatic treat here, all nicely topped off by three career best performances from the young leads.
Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is at the peak of his powers, having successfully infiltrated the high offices of the wizarding world and dispatching anybody foolish enough to stand in his way. After a daring rescue mission, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is reunited with old friends and allies, and future plans are forged in order to halt Voldemort’s wicked influence engulfing their lives. In a bid to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes, Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) decide to go on the run, heading into deep forests and icy glades to avoid the minions of evil discovering them. If obliterated the Horcruxes will drain all of Voldemort’s power, but they’re almost impossible to find and harder yet to destroy. Using a select few tools left to them in the deceased Dumbledore’s will, the band of friends fire headfirst into their mission, but external dangers and personal tensions are never far behind.
Deathly Hallows: Part 1 removes the action completely from Hogwarts; this is the first film in the Potter cycle to be left without the comfortable narrative template of an academic calendar. Instead the picture opts for a much more chaotic and horrific tone, director David Yates displaying perfectly a world tarnished by nefarious deeds and an ominous future. Without the comforting silhouette of Dumbledore, this marks the first movie in which are heroes are placed decidedly on the back foot, with the consistently threatening Voldemort now having taken charge. Ralph Fiennes once again steps nicely into the role of the nastiest wizard in town, bringing genuine malice and cold heartedness to his performance. In many ways thanks to these unfortunate storytelling circumstances and Fiennes’s cunningly disturbing turn, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 almost plays like a slow burning horror effort with chase elements. It’s a welcome treat and a delightful change of pace for those who like their fantasy a little more macabre.
Radcliffe, Watson and Grint all soar to new heights here, finally banishing the doubts that have tormented them since debuting as their respective characters in 2001. Each actor is able to perfectly articulate the angst of adulthood (John Hughes would be proud), and more now than ever the cracks in their relationships are utilized as prime dramatic fodder. As a group of best friends they make for a believably warm trio, but there are outbursts of anger and friction to be enjoyed here also. The uncertain romantic dynamic that has teetered around the Ron/Hermione relationship for several films finally comes full circle, whilst scenes of heated debate between Radcliffe and Grint feel more organic than they have in any past production. However in many ways it’s Watson who deserves the grandest backslap of all, the 20 year old actress bringing a subtle distress and melancholy to her part which smacks of true artistic maturity.
This being a Harry Potter picture an assortment of Britain’s best and brightest are on hand to fill out the supporting roles, all the regulars faring pretty well. New additions include Bill Nighy (small part, sweet performance) and Rhys Ifans (commendably batty), both thespians slotting comfortably into the saga’s already legendary acting hall of fame.
Visually the film is glorious, Yates painting the film in shades of deep grey and morose white, allowing a feeling of despair and fear to dominate the photographical palette. The production design is dependably high end, and the visual effects are virtually flawless throughout.Deathly Hallows: Part 1 begins with a phenomenal slice of action; a brilliantly constructed broomstick chase over the streets of London. The scene is steadily shot and very exciting, Yates using crackerjack tension and state of the art FX knowhow to create moments of tantalizing popcorn fun. The middle section of the movie is a far more meditative experience, as the screenplay becomes intensely focused on the social isolation and fixation with death that the central figures are left to endure. Of all the movies so far “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” is the most emotionally complex and insightful, the screenplay courtesy of Steve Kloves engaging themes that most big budget fare wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.
For a family flick Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is rather aggressive, the movie not allergic to showing a little graphic violence. Yates has no trouble fishing up the odd gory shot, and there are moments of bone crunching torture here that will legitimately scare the under 12 crowd. It’s a brave and rewarding move, allowing the audience to comprehend the extent of the jeopardy the good guys are in. This being only one half of the final chapter (the next film arrives summer 2011) the story is left unfinished, but the moment of departure isn’t a cheery one. Deathly Hallows: Part 1 concludes at a moment of exhilarating promise, but things certainly aren’t looking up for Harry and company.
At 146 minutes in length the project is a hefty event, but the running time glides by with compelling ease. Deathly Hallows: Part 1 feels like a standard 90 minute affair, and if that isn’t an editorial marvel I don’t know what is. Of course much of this picture’s relevance and long-term entertainment value depends on a high quality payoff come next year, but for now this is a hugely encouraging sign of things to come.
Director: David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy
Runtime: 146 min
Country: UK, USA