A palpable sense of darkness looms over Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1, the seventh — and bleakest — installment in the franchise yet. By now, any last vestiges of kid’s play have been thoroughly erased, letting this, the penultimate film in the Harry Potter universe, blossom into a dark, brooding and mesmerizing work of art. Just as its young stars grew up, the series has too, and is all the better for its sense of cinematic maturity.
Throughout the course of its nearly decade-long run, the Harry Potter franchise has gone through many a permutation, from the plastic, commercial family adventures of the first two features, both tritely directed by Chris Columbus, through the various coming-of-age fantasies of the middle films, and on, finally, to the eerie desolation that is Deathly Hallows. When the great Alfonso Cuaron took over directing duties from Columbus on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it signaled a conscious turn away from the clunky, brightly lit and unimaginative children’s fare of the first films, and a leap towards more gratifyingly complex material. With Deathly Hallows, director David Yates, encoring from the somewhat lackluster fifth and sixth films, brings that complexity to a full boil, making for a movie that is more assured, gripping and emotionally satisfying then ever before — the strongest Potter achievement yet.
Divvying up J.K. Rowling’s book into two parts — partially to give this particular adaptation room to breathe, without disemboweling the beloved text, and partially to milk a few more dollars out of the Potter coffers — Deathly Hallows — Part 1 visualizes the more, shall we say, expository first half of the novel. In other words, the film is 2 1/2 hours of characters walking through the woods, talking, searching for magical objects occasionally interspersed with bouts of action and magic. If that sounds at all boring — it isn’t. Yates has made this film with consummate skill, a nuanced ability to grasp a myriad of emotions and balance a delicate blend of tones, all topped with a cinematic confidence that allows for Yates to do inventive maneuvers, like, say, illustrating the origins of the titular deathly hallows via a dazzling, and deeply grim, animated segment. It all makes for a gutsy, bold and strong piece of filmmaking.
Yates uses the structural frameworks of the horror movie and the quest epic this time to pin the mood of his film on. Wraithlike Death Eaters, spectral visions, disquieting depictions of Orwellian fascism and some surprisingly bloody violence contribute to the sense that Yates is making his version of a Potterian Gothic. A few sequences of well staged suspense and terror — including an attack by Voldemort’s vicious pet snake — only serve to reinforce the point of darkness. There’s nary a comforting vision of the traditional Potter regalia — no scenes at Hogwarts, no Quidditch Cup matches, nothing to reassure us that we are watching the usual kiddie fare. Deathly Hallows is an “adult” movie in the best sense of the term, a movie about growing up and facing grown up challenges, about the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional complications and compromises that arise from adversity, loss and the complexity of interpersonal relationships.
The film largely focuses almost solely on Harry, Ron and Hermione (as always, played by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson), shunting most everyone else to background roles, and the young actors are up for the task. Over the course of seven films, Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have deepened into strong, terrific young actors, and its their singular efforts and rapport that most keep us invested. As Ron, Harry and Hermione trek across wintry, barren landscapes, captured by the beautifully somber cinematography of Eduardo Serra, on a mission to destroy the magical horcruxes, they are each challenged not only by the evil Lord Voldemort and his array of queasy, unnerving henchmen, but by their own shifting, fragile hearts and bonds. The underlying rivalry for the affections of Hermione between Harry and Ron bubbles to the surface, and Harry struggles with the weight of sacrifice, of the guilt that people are dying to protect him, of the remorse and pain that comes when he loses those that he loves; incidentally, it’s a pain we, as an audience, feel to when characters we’ve come to love as well die. (And they do, here, quite tragically.)
It’s all quite weighty stuff for what is ostensibly a holiday family film. But then again how many so-called family adventures would score a sweet scene of friendly comfort, an oasis of calm and happiness in a field of melancholy, to a song by Nick Cave, the bard of the deep-voiced dolorous croon? It’s certainly a risky and audacious move on the part of Warner Bros to allow their cash cow franchise to move away from pure product into the level of genuine art but that’s exactly what Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1 is. The kids play is no more. We are in the realm of a genuinely terrific, cinematic, complex drama. Deathly Hallows isn’t just the best Harry Potter yet — its one of the best films I’ve seen all year.