WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Following the death of his much-loved mentor Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter’s mission to find and destroy the horcruxes harbouring the evil lord Voldemort’s soul becomes overwhelmingly dangerous. Ron and Hermione do their best to keep Harry’s spirits up, but not all of the young wizard’s long-standing friends will make it to the final showdown.
We’ve had a long old journey with Harry Potter. So long, now, that the phrase ‘boy wizard’ no longer applies. And just at the moment when his journey is coming to an end, The Deathly Hallows sub-divides like one of Zeno’s paradoxes – or Voldemort’s soul – into several parts. Will the story never end?
Dumbledore’s death at the end of Half-Blood Prince has only strengthened the resolve of his Order of the Phoenix to protect Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), the ‘chosen one’ who carries the wizarding world’s only hope of defeating Voldemort (Ranulph Fiennes). It’s a perilous assignment, since Voldemort and his Death Eaters have taken control of the Ministry of Magic and are threatening to devastate the lives of those of impure blood, including muggles such as Hermione’s (Emma Watson) parents.
An attack on the Order when trying to move Harry convinces the youngster that he’s putting lives at risks needlessly, but best friend Ron (Rupert Grint) won’t let him set out alone – and Ron’s unspoken girlfriend Hermione won‘t let either of them out of her sight. The trio set out to complete Dumbledore’s quest to find and destroy horcruxes; unfortunately, they don’t really know what they look like or where they are, and the journey isn’t much helped by the cryptic inheritances from Dumbledore’s will. And while there’s the odd friendly face, including proudly free former house-elf Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones), there are enemies at every turn, including the vile Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and the bands of ‘snatchers’ who roam the country rounding up dissident or fugitive wizards.
You will notice that this summary singularly fails to mention any Deathly Hallows, and it’s a good ninety minutes before they’re mentioned in the film (they are, as a nice piece of animation deftly explains, a resurrection stone, an incredibly powerful Elder wand, and a certain invisibility cloak). In part this is a remnant from the book, which also muddies its plot trying to cope with the ongoing horcrux quest whilst introducing a whole new set of artifacts; even more, though, the decision to split the book into two movies makes for a decidedly incomplete story.
There are numerous plot strands which aren’t remotely paid off during this film, including a certain amount of wand jiggery-pokery that asks you to remember who’s holding what until next July (or better still, I guess, watch this film again before seeing the final, final instalment). The division of the book into two long parts also means Part 1 spends a very long time roaming the countryside, though it does liven up occasionally – one more horcrux is obtained from the ministry and destroyed, in exciting fashion. You’ll be disappointed if you go in expecting an action-filled, self-contained tale from Deathly Hallows Part 1, but unlike certain sequels (I mean Pirates 2, of course) it’s by no means two-and-a-bit hours of wasted time.
The other thing I’ve not mentioned is Hogwarts, and the location of the young trio completely outside the school makes this a much fresher, if you like ‘new phase’ Harry Potter film. Yates certainly has an eye for the countryside, and he captures the loneliness and frustration of Harry, Hermione and (when he’s not sulking) Ron as they cross almost post-apocalyptic landscapes. He also does well to assert the reality of the situation, portraying a recognisable Britain which happens to have some magic in it. I like the fact that the fantasy is muted (the once-jaunty theme tune is hushed in, apologetically), but there is a trade-off; the magic spells are now largely ersatz bullets, exploding around the heads of our heroes. Younger children especially might find themselves dismayed or bored by the troubling and sinister tone of the film, and ask what happened to the moving staircases? And how dare they kill off…well, I won’t go into all of that.
The Deathly Hallows’ isolation of Harry, Rob and Hermione naturally focuses ever more attention on the leads who have grown with the franchise; talented though the impressive cast members undoubtedly are, they really have little more than glorified cameos (that said, Fiennes and Bonham Carter are great, as usual; Rhys Ifans is also affecting as newcomer Xenophilius Lovegood). Grint is an increasingly physical as well as emotional presence as Ron, while Emma Watson still makes for a distinctly upper-crust Hermione. She can definitely act, though, as shown in an early heart-rending scene in which she removes all trace of her existence from her parents’ memories.
And Radcliffe? He looks the part, down to the now ludicrous-looking (and obviously lensless) glasses, and says the right things; but there remains something unfinished about his performance, the impression that he can’t quite manage intense, only getting as far as tense. Still, we’re all used to it by now and Radcliffe’s acting doesn’t remotely spoil the film; indeed, there’s a charming (if brief) glimpse of the real man laughing and enjoying himself during his otherwise awkward dance with Hermione.
As a set-up to what should be a rich, huge, blockbusting finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 may by definition not be an entirely satisfactory single film. However, within itself, it creates, builds and sustains an emotion to a heart-breaking climax. Most importantly, although you might not remember all the dangling plot strands, part 1 readies the viewer with the requisite information and tension for what’s to come. Surely that’s a job pretty much done.