This is a tricky one to review, because I am of split mind on the way it works as a movie.
The title should be the tip-off right away that this is not meant to stand on its own. Each of the previous films in the series has been a stand-alone, with nary a number in sight. True, if you buy the giant special collector’s edition Blu-ray editions of the films that are being released by Warner Bros., there are big numbers on the side of each one, but that’s not part of the title. Never has been. Now, for the last two films, we get “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.” It’s a choice based purely on function, inelegant, and the one genuine criticism that anyone could level at the movie opening in theaters everywhere on Friday is that its ending is based purely on function, although elegant in its way.
If my biggest complaint about a film is that I would have happily sat through the next two-and-a-half hours of story immediately, I’d say that’s a good complaint, one that director David Yates should take as high praise. There is little doubt that this series belongs to Yates at this point. I’ve enjoyed the round robin of directors as the series progressed, and rewatching the films in the last few weeks, I am struck anew by just how lucky they got. Chris Columbus set the tone and found the kids, and he had to do all the heavy lifting in setting up a visual palette for Hogwarts and the world of Harry Potter, and in his two films, I think he defined things so well that when Alfonso Cuaron came on for “Azkaban,” he was able to play. The only reason Cuaron’s film is able to experiment is because Columbus had already so clearly established everything, so experimenting with those boundaries felt thrilling. Mike Newell, who almost broke his film into two parts a la “Deathly Hallows,” had perhaps the biggest job in any of the individual films, and his movie kicked off the narrative arc that really brings the second half of the series together. Until “Goblet,” the films are exciting, but the stakes aren’t as brutal as they could be. “Goblet” features the first key death in the war that has been building in each film since then, and “Deathly Hallows” brings that all from a simmer to a boil.
The film picks up in motion, and it ends in motion. This is not a jumping-on point for people unfamiliar with the series. At the very start, we see that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) preparing for the storm ahead, aware that Voldemort has returned, still suffering after the death of Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) at the end of the previous film. Sides have been chosen, pretense has been dropped, and the war has begun. There’s a moment in those early scenes when Hermione is leaving home and she takes a moment to cast a forgetting spell on her parents, erasing all traces of herself from the house and their lives, and watching her vanish from family photos struck me as a particularly sad and adult image. Part of the undeniable power of these final films comes from having actually watched these children grow up in real time, and because we’ve shared all these developmental milestones along the way with them, we are invested in them in a unique way. Even the way Harry says goodbye to the Dursleys shows an evolution. Who would have expected him to be nostalgic, even for a moment, for that space under the stairs where he lived at the start of the first film? And who would have thought that these simple “children’s stories” would have such cumulative weight?
Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) feels more real-world evil than many fantasy villains because of the real-world connotations to his plans. After all, this is a series about the battle between a philosophy of racial purity and one of inclusion, and that disturbing subtext is made clear again in this film. The result, for me at least, is that the bad guys in this series are genuinely upsetting and not just generic action movie bad guys. One of the things that I grow weary of in movies is the idea of “saving the world” because it seems like such a ridiculous easy thing to say, but such a hard thing to actually define. I have a hard time understanding why any villain would hope to destroy the world or end the world. There’s nothing in it for them, no goal that makes sense. With these films, the goal is reshaping the world into a place where wizards and witches live in a superior position to the plain and boring Muggles, where magic gives them an advantage and where blood defines your place in the world. It’s believable, and it’s awful, and I love the way it’s taking a toll on the followers of Voldemort. Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) may have started the series as sneering stereotypes, bullies for the sake of it, but the way they’ve evolved over the course of the films is fascinating, and the Malfoys look like they know they’ve made the wrong choice but there’s no way out now. They’re stuck. And the use of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) continues to be a very clever game of “What is he really doing?” that has to pay off in the next film in a huge way. There’s an awful moment early on where Snape witnesses a display of Voldemort’s killing powers that is startlingly dark, and which tests Snape’s ability to sit by and observe instead of acting. Even the nameless goons, the Snatchers, that are sent out by Voldemort to track Harry Potter and his friends, are genuinely menacing, and efficient in a way that most anonymous henchmen rarely are.
There are some new additions to the cast this time around, including Bill Nighy as Rufus Scrimgeour, the new Minister of Magic, Peter Mullan as Yaxley, and Rhys Ifans as Xenophilius Lovegood, and one of the things that will be great about looking back at these films in the future will be seeing the way they utilized some of the best of the British film industry in these casts. It’s not many series that can pull in players like John Hurt and Helena Bonham Carter and David Thewlis and Toby Jones and Imelda Staunton for these small roles, giving life to these eccentric characters above and beyond their brief appearances onscreen. Because you have a cast like that taking this world seriously, it gives the audience permission to take it all seriously, too.
Much of the film hinges on time spent with Harry, Hermione, and Ron on the run together, and looking at their work together in this film, they’ve grown into really strong young performers. They are adults now, as strange as that seems, and the relationships they’ve built over time pay off here. Watson seems like the strongest of the three, and I sincerely hope this does not represent the sum total of her film work. She’s grown into a strikingly pretty young woman, but there’s also a flinty strength to her that I find compelling. She and Grint have a great chemistry that plays into the relationship that Hermione and Ron keep denying to themselves.
Eduardo Serra’s work as director of photography mixes the magical and the mundane perfectly, and the FX work in this one is double-effective because of how naturalistic the shooting style of the film is. It also helps that this is the least stage-bound of the films. As much as I love the design of Hogwarts, taking the action out of a familiar setting and dropping into the familiar real world around us is a very smart move, and it underscores just how big the stakes are this time. The score by Alexandre Desplat is effective and emotional, and leans just enough on the themes established by John Williams to tie it in to the rest of the series. There are some really interesting choices made throughout the film, as well, like the way they tell the story of the Three Brothers. I wasn’t expecting a major seven minute animated sequence in the film, but it’s gorgeous, and it works really well.
To discuss this last point, I have to indulge a spoiler, so if you’ve read the books, you’re safe, but if you’re walking into this fresh, you can stop reading now and just know that I recommend the film, particularly for fans of the series.
If you’re still reading, I wanted to touch on the way they close this film and the choice they make about where to end it. The two films have a built-in ticking clock of searching for the Horcruxes, the magical artifacts that each contain a piece of the soul of Voldemort. Finding and destroying them is the key to winning the war, and since you know they can’t find and destroy them all in this film, how do you build to a satisfying conclusion? Well, the answer is in the goal that Voldemort has, finding the Elder Wand, which was buried with Dumbledore, and in trapping Harry and his friends. Their escape, accomplished thanks to Dobby the Elf (voiced by Toby Jones), comes at a hard price, and George Lucas will most likely look at this film and curse himself, because they manage something with Dobby that Lucas was never able to pull off with Jar Jar. They’ve taken this annoying little CGI character and made him painfully, sadly human, enough so that when he makes his sacrifice at the end of the film, it hurts. And if you want to know whether or not they’ve succeeded in bringing Dobby to authentic life, all you need to do is look at the moment he dies and you see the light ebb from his eyes. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking, and it matters. And then to turn around and cap it all with a silent moment of total triumph for Voldemort as he holds aloft that Elder Wand? Crushing. It is a near-complete kick in the balls, and a bold choice.
So bring it on, Warner Bros. Let’s see “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” and see if they can actually stick the landing on this series. Because based on the evidence of this penultimate entry, the answer is a resounding yes.
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1” opens everywhere tomorrow.