Directed by: David Yates (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy
With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1—or as I like to think of it, in Fellini terms, Harry Potter 6 1/2—the series finally crosses the line into the realm of the horror film. This should come as no surprise, since it’s been heading that way all along. And while Deathly Hallows: Part 1 most assuredly can’t stand on its own, it fulfills the promise of Brit TV director David Yates as the perfect Harry Potter director—and quite possibly as a filmmaker to reckon with in general. However, this is not a film for the uninitiated; it would be a bad starting point for a newcomer. But then I find it difficult to imagine that there would be many people who, after avoiding the first six movies, suddenly have the urge to take up the series now.
This entry starts where Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince leaves off, and it definitely assumes the viewer is familiar with that film. In all honesty, I suspect that it’s only because I had re-watched Half-Blood Prince on Tuesday that I remembered what a “horcrux” is—and as a result, knew just why Harry and his compatriots were so keen on tracking horcruxes down. I suppose it doesn’t really matter all that much—think of them as a MacGuffin—but I was glad to know all the same. Of course, I’m only a casual fan. That’s to say, I’ve liked all the films, loved two of them (now three, or two-and-a-half anyway), but my knowledge of the intricacies of the world they inhabit is by no means encyclopedic. True Potterheads are tut-tutting even as we speak that I wouldn’t know what a horcrux is without a refresher course.
Is this the darkest of all the Harry Potter movies? I’d say it is. I also think that ought to have been expected, since Half-Blood Prince climaxed with the death of one of the series’ most beloved characters. That set the stage for the ultimate battle that’s always been at the center of the overall story, and it’s not surprising that the mortality rate is going up—in part because the stakes have gone up. I suppose the cynical might want to factor in the desire to create a certain closure for the characters by the author, but even that is as much a need for satisfying the reader/viewer as anything else.
Complaints that the last book has been cut into two parts strike me as especially ill-founded now that I’ve seen this latest installment. Unless there’s precious little left to the story—which I don’t see as likely—I can’t see how this could effectively have been telescoped into a more compact narrative. Even as it stands, fairly major events and at least two main character deaths take place offscreen and are referred to almost in passing. And it isn’t as if the film feels padded. I suppose some of the dialogue scenes with the three main characters might have been trimmed, but not to the degree that it would have altered things. This does seem to be a case where the length of the story required two films rather than one.
As filmmaking, this is probably the most accomplished of the series, with the possible exception of Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)—and I’d have to actually compare the two directly to make that call. Plus, like Yates’ Half-Blood Prince, this may qualify as a better Harry Potter film than Azkaban: There’s both a sense of more filmmaking freedom here—the inclusion of an animated sequence is very striking and well judged—and seemingly a greater interest in truly exploring the characters of Harry, Ron and Hermione. It’s fortunate that Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and, especially, Emma Watson have developed considerably as actors over the years.
Is this a perfect film? No. The very fact that it’s essentially half a story precludes it working as a single film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve never heard anyone complain of the fact that Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse (1922) is in two parts, and, of course, the two Kill Bill films are a more contemporary example. It does, however, make it impossible to judge the film fairly. For example, I can react to the characters’ response to what happens, but not really to the event itself. (I can say no more without saying too much.) However, the film is on firmer—and certainly more horrifically interesting—ground with this installment’s actual final sequence. Now, if only Part 2 lives up to it. Rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality.