In six films in nine years, the Harry Potter series was the rare film franchise that grew and improved. With Alfonso Cuaron's unusually organic third film, The Prisoner of Azkaban, as something of a visual anomaly, the series really found its footing with the past two entries — The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince — both directed by British television veteran David Yates.
Yates returns for the series' two-part Deathly Hallows finale, but in part one the progress stalls.
As the film opens, the good wizard Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is dead, the bad guys have taken over the Ministry of Magic, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) — now deemed "Undesirable No. 1" — and his cohorts are in hiding, and evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has gathered his minions to plot the final demise of "chosen one" Harry.
One of the chief pleasures of the series has been watching the lead actors — Radcliffe, Emma Watson (as Hermione), and Rupert Grint (as Ron) — grow up on screen, and The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 pushes this trio into more adult territory, with violence begetting real blood and with intimations of sex. But, in this slowest, darkest, moodiest film in the series, these developments don't feel as revelatory as you'd hope.
With the beloved Hogwarts School totally absent as a setting, the series' sense of play is mostly MIA. There's a snazzy sequence in which the film morphs into something like a WWII spy thriller, as the core trio, in disguise, infiltrate the now totalitarian-controlled Ministry of Magic, which gifts us with a return of the twinkling, pink-clad Imelda Staunton as chipper fascist Dolores Umbridge. Here, the film has some fun with totalitarian imagery — an enormous statue declaring "Magic is Might," examples of anti-mudblood propaganda, etc. And a later visit to the home of much-missed classmate Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) introduces us to the concept of dirigible plums, while an unexpected animated detour is terrifically realized.
But mostly this first half of the series finale is a dutiful, too-grim procession of plot points, packed with so many MacGuffins — Hitchock's word for objects that drive the plot — that non-fanatics are sure to become confused trying to keep up with why and how all these things matter.
More than any previous Potter film, this one feels directed toward devotees rather than casual fans — those who care deeply about the story arc rather than the happy diversions provided by magical business and colorful supporting characters. The brilliant crop of veteran British actors are present again but aren't put to much use here, as the film spends long, depopulated stretches with just its leads. Even Harry's love interest Ginny (Bonnie Wright), who will presumably figure prominently in next year's finale, barely registers.
The film's episodic journey structure, vast "outdoors" settings, and diminutive CGI creatures evoke the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which it nearly matches in bloat. Ultimately, The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 feels like a two-and-a-half-hour prologue for next year's finale.
Opening Friday, November 19th