Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part 1

Harry Potter is heading off. The first in a double bill of farewells, The Deathly Hallows Part 1, is a passable thumb-twiddler for impatient fans but the beginning of the end for this dwindling saga fails to generate the tension required to maintain interest in the conclusion to follow (in swanky but unrequested 3-D) next July.

As the last installment The Half Blood Prince hinted, the world of Harry Potter has become a scarier, more threatening place. This story opens with a series of poignant sacrifices as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) leave the comfort of their families and the alma mater of Hogwarts behind and strike out on their own. Harry’s mortal enemy, the now all-powerful wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has taken control of the Ministry of Magic and declared the teenager to be “Undesirable No. 1”. The Orwellian Ministry, now overseen by psychotic housewife Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), has started a campaign against mudbloods, wizards born to Muggles, the echoes of Nazism underlined by black-shirted soldiers carrying scarlet banners.

Harry’s only hope of stopping Voldemort lies in his finding and destroying the mystical horcruxes, fragments of the Dark Lord's septic soul hidden throughout the magical world. The late, lamented Dumbledore has left behind a series of clues but the central trio must venture out on their own to locate the hidden objects by decoding symbols and tracking down lost witches and wizards, all without the support of their usual champions. Then, suddenly, the trio is split. Paranoid, jealous Ron leaves Harry and Hermione to continue the quest on their own, with director David Yates employing the divide to spin the series’ most unstructured, free-form chapter yet, a lumbering, bleak winter spent camping out, going from shadowy forest to windblown cliffs, as the trio join the dots on their quest while engaging in a timid teenage bicker.

Even with returning screenwriter Steve Kloves cleaving Rowling’s 700 page novel in two more or less equal halves, Yates’ film stumbles under the weight of its awkward exposition. The tone is richly gloomy but the choppy story never achieves the same uniform tenor, unfolding as a procession of crisis moments played as interchangeable action sequences; flashily photographed and edited and awash with impressive CGI effects but essentially inert and uninvolving. Far better are the film’s few quiet moments; the central trio’s bleak trek through the wintry British landscape, a beautiful shadow puppet-inspired animation that explains the origins of the title and a late scene in a snowbound cemetery that is one of the few occasions of emotional honesty in the entire franchise.

It’s not only the story that has matured; these characters have grown up in front of us. Harry’s serious face now sports tufts of wispy stubble, tomboy brain-box Hermione has matured into a sensible romantic heroine while Ron has gone from squeaky-voiced scaredy-cat to square-shouldered hunk. No longer able to hide behind the tag ‘child-actors’, these young veterans, who have been playing the roles for almost a decade, must carry the vast weight of this film entirely on their own. Radcliffe and Grint emerge as the victors, with Watson looking uncomfortable, even when sitting still. What is sorely lacking is something conclusive for any of them to do, with Part 1 only a drawn-out set-up for the last hurrah to come next year. And not a moment too soon.

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