Dir: David Yates
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 has an extremely challenging job; it must be both the calm before, and the beginnings of the storm itself. Splitting JK Rowling's final book made sense in a lot of ways (not least commercially), but it does present a challenge for this film; how do you make setup play as an exciting and complete experience? Even though the first six films built to a grander point they all, to some degree, had a self contained quest. David Yates, now on his third Potter, deals with the challenge confidently, delivering a film that is pacy and exciting, but also, due to its different form (it's essentially a road movie, and set entirely outside Hogwarts) spends greater time and energy on character than any of its predecessors, making for a surprisingly satisfying experience for what is, basically, an extended prologue.
Much is asked of the core trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in this film. There are, for the bulk of the film, few of the regular minor characters to provide the spice that they usually add. This is a film entirely on the shoulders of this young trio, and they carry it brilliantly. If Half Blood Prince showed how far Emma Watson's portrayal of Hermione has come, this time it is the turn of Rupert Grint, whose Ron finally graduates from comic relief status with some real heroism and a couple of extremely well handled dramatic scenes (particularly when, having been absent for a long time after arguing with Harry, Ron explains why he's come back to the fold). For much of the film's near two and a half hour running time we follow Harry, Hermione and Ron on their lonely quest to find and destroy the horcruxes that hold Voldemort's soul, it's here that we really get to dig into the characters and, rather than the visceral thrills that characterise both this and the other films in the series, get a couple of scenes of really taut tension as the group hide out from Voldemort's spies as they hunt the chosen one and his friends.
Two of the best scenes in this segment of the film are additions not found in Rowling's book. The first has Hermione almost discovered because, despite all her protective magic, someone smells her perfume, while the second sees Harry and Hermione, at their lowest ebb, dancing to a Nick Cave song on the radio. That moment is one of my favourites in the whole franchise; in 40 wordless seconds it speaks to all the years of friendship, all the feelings these two have for each other, giving them a brief respite from the darkness around them. It's rather beautiful.
Getting to this quest takes some work, and the process provides a handful of lighter moments. There's a lovely comic scene in which many allies take Polyjuice potion to make themselves look like Harry so that Voldemort and his Death Eaters won't know which Harry to attack, and a very funny scene, also involving Polyjuice potion, in which Harry, Hermione and Ron steal into the Ministry of Magic in pursuit of a horcrux. Even at these moments though, tragedy is never far away, in one of most movingly and subtly developed threads in the series, Hermione makes a huge sacrifice to go with Harry and Ron, erasing herself from her parents memory; another fine piece of acting from Watson there.
All the while, Voldemort and the Death Eaters, and both sides quest for the titular Deathly Hallows (whose background is filled in with a brilliant animated sequence which looks like the Lotte Reigner influenced fever dream of Guillermo Del Toro) are in the background, threatening the whole time to break through, which they finally do in a tremendous last twenty minutes. With Hermione, Ron and a heavily disguised Harry captured, Bellatrix Lestrange determines to discover if this is the real Potter she has. Thee resulting torture sequence is brief and not massively explicit, but actually it's all the more disturbing and upsetting for playing largely through Hermione's screams. This is where all the hard graft of the character work, all the history, pays dividends; it makes us care. We know these characters, most likely love them (unless you're rooting for Voldemort, in which case get the hell away from me you loony), and hearing one of them in pain, seeing her bleed, hurts.
This is what's uncommon about the Harry Potter films, and perhaps particularly about the last two (or one, depending on how you wish to define it), there's a level of emotional engagement that most blockbusters either can't or simply don't care to reach.
The technical aspects of the film continue to be absolutely impeccable; the dark, desaturated, photography has a stark beauty, and matches the mood of the piece perfectly. Alexandre Desplat's score has an emotional tug, without seeming like it is instructing us as to how we should feel, and the special effects really deserve that designation, with the much improved Dobby the House Elf feeling, this time, like a real character rather than a digital approximation of one (which, again, gives a key moment a weight I'd never have expected given how I felt about him in Chamber of Secrets).
Aside from a couple of minor performances hiccups (the standard Bill Nighy performance; Welsh variation), Deathly Hallows Part 1 is just about perfect. It could have been little more than an extended trailer for Part 2, but instead it continues to darken, and more importantly deepen this saga, and promises great things for the long awaited ending.