Movie Review: 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,' the beginning of the end

As fans prepare for the release of part one of the last film in the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," here's a look at the cast, books and movies over the years.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 12:17 AM

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1" can't be anything but unsatisfying. As the first part of the last movie in a 10-year franchise that has taken on almost theological meaning for a generation of readers and filmgoers, it's meant to leave audiences wanting more. It's half of a really good movie, full of the enchantment, emotion and incident for which the Potter series has become so fanatically cherished.

"Deathly Hallows - Part 1" is also grim, downbeat and unimaginably sad, preparing viewers for the inevitable day next summer when the second "Deathly Hallows" installment arrives and they must say goodbye for the last time. With its gray palette and elegiac tone, this penultimate offering is just right for what it is: the beginning of the end.

It barely merits noting that the seventh "Harry Potter" film is best enjoyed by hard-core Potter fans; if you don't know a Dumbledore from a Gryffindor, you're probably in the wrong theater. As for the Potterheads, they most likely don't need to be reminded of what's going on in this one: The evil Lord Voldemort (a noseless Ralph Fiennes), having taken over the Ministry of Magic, is bent on the destruction of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and all the magical-Muggle miscegenation he represents.

Meanwhile Harry, along with his best friends, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), has dropped out of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to find the "Horcruxes" that give Voldemort his power and immortality and vanquish him forever.

"Deathly Hallows - Part 1" takes place on the eve of Harry's 17th birthday, and touching as it does on themes of Oedipal struggles, adolescent longing and overwhelming loss, it recalls "Star Wars," its forebear in the pantheon of generational cinematic touchstones. But rather than break faith with fans with cheap merchandise-driven characters and story lines (Jar Jar Binks, anyone?), the "Harry Potter" producers have proven admirably conscientious stewards of J.K. Rowling's best-selling books. While not necessarily breaking new cinematic ground, the movies have served the books' fans as carefully composed and richly detailed - if necessarily condensed - illustrations of their beloved stories.

"Deathly Hallows - Part 1" is no exception, with screenwriter Steve Kloves and director David Yates bringing the novel to life with taste and seriousness befitting its apocalyptic setting. The "Potter" franchise deserves considerable credit for providing something of a permanent jobs program for Britain's finest actors, including Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) and Michael Gambon (the late, lamented Albus Dumbledore). They're all on hand here, as well as several other of their countrymen, including Helena Bonham Carter, who gets some toothsome scenes as the Gothically wicked Bellatrix Lestrange. With their natural features concealed under heavy makeup or computer-generated effects, their voices become more important than in most films, a challenge these theatrically trained pros meet with exceptional force and style.

One of the best things about "Deathly Hallows - Part 1" is how Yates has resisted over-reliance on technology. (It was announced just a few weeks ago that plans for a 3-D release had been scuttled, a development for which the audience can only be grateful.) Certainly there are some spectacular special effects in the movie, including a wonderful 360-degree shot in which a roomful of Harry's friends and protectors all turn into Potter look-alikes, and various chase scenes through a timeless but slightly off-kilter London.

But rather than sheer spectacle or trickery, "Deathly Hallows - Part 1" is memorable chiefly for its human drama, most of which is played out between Harry, Hermione and Ron as they wander a wintry landscape whose bleak contours fit the story's dire emotional tone. (Be forewarned that more than a few beloved characters meet their end in this installment.)

Indeed, more than an action fantasy, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1" is probably best appreciated as a war picture, with the ragtag team of downtrodden heroes leaving the comforts of Hogwarts for dark forests and desolate battlefields. There are almost no smiles or laughs in this chapter of "Harry Potter," during which the not-so-young-anymore protagonists look like haunted, hollow-eyed refugees. (The movie's warmest scene, when Harry and Hermione try to cheer themselves up by dancing to the radio, is one of the few sequences Kloves didn't take directly from the book.)

If that sounds like a downer, fans will most likely appreciate the gravitas with which Yates and Kloves are approaching the material. And the somber atmosphere also throws into sharp relief just how magnificently Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have matured over the past decade. When the adorable 11-year-old Radcliffe was first cast as the bespectacled Harry back in 2000, the filmmakers couldn't have predicted that he would only grow in seriousness and charisma as his character matured.

Most gratifyingly, after being somewhat neglected in earlier chapters, Hermione comes into her own in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1," with Watson providing the film with its wise and watchful center. In an early sequence, when Hermione casts a spell over her parents to erase herself from their memories, Watson transforms an otherwise marginal episode into one of the most emotionally affecting moments in the film.

Over and over again throughout "Deathly Hallows - Part 1," she saves the day, most often by digging into a fabulously beaded bag of tricks, where she roots around to acquire the necessary accouterments to beam herself and her friends out of danger. Lean, solemn and supremely self-possessed, Watson's Hermione has become a literal spellbinder - who, like all women, understands the power of a really good purse.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 *** (145 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence and frightening images.)

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