“The motion picture event of a generation.”
That was the bold claim made in the June 2010 trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. Whether or not you agree, the numbers don’t lie: 10+ years, seven books, eight movies (as of next summer, that is), millions of fans around the globe and billions of dollars in revenue. Author J.K. Rowling’s magical world-within-a-world has become a cultural touchstone. Her telling of Harry Potter’s story came to an end in 2007; now Warner Bros follows suit with a two-part telling of the series’ final book, the first of which arrives in theaters this Friday. Does it measure up to the high expectations fans have for it?
In a word, yes.
For the past decade, we’ve watched Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson – as best friends Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, respectively – mature from starry-eyed children to full-grown adults with complex emotions. Now, actors, characters and viewers alike leave behind the carefree days spent at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry for their difficult final journey, one which stretches their relationship to its limits. Unsurprisingly, the three performers rise to the challenge of relating this darkest chapter in the Harry Potter franchise.
Radcliffe simply owns his role. He takes a lot of emotional punches over the course of the 140+ minute running time and he somehow manages to weather every blow with a palpable sense of loss while still tapping into the innocent newcomer persona which so defines his place in Rowling’s fictional world. The starry eyes may be gone, but the sense of wonder that’s characterized him since Hagrid’s first visit in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone remains. Harry is older and wiser now, but Radcliffe is still very much The Boy Who Lived.
Then there’s Grint. Ron Weasley is a slow-to-develop character in the arc of the franchise, almost one-dimensional in the early going in the “stalwart best friend/comic relief” role. But in Deathly Hallows, there are no comforts. Our heroic threesome is on the run and Ron, perhaps the most coddled of the bunch, strains mightily under the stresses. Grint has a haggard look to him throughout the film. He’s on edge. He clearly loves his friends, but he just as clearly fears for his family and perhaps even longs for the simplicity of simply being part of the pack once again. Part one of Deathly Hallows is, in many ways, about Ron’s journey. Grint sells it. We buy it completely when an emotional turn of events takes him out of the story for a good portion of the film and we buy it just as completely when he returns, proverbial hat in hand.
Finally we come to Watson, the emotional and logical center of this threesome. Over the course of the series we’ve seen her mature from an annoyingly overbearing child actor – sorry fans, it’s true – to a seasoned performer. Watson is in no danger of being typecast after this series comes to a close next year; she’s a natural.
That said, of the three main characters, Watson also has the least challenging set of demands placed on her talents in this chapter. She shines most brightly during Grint’s absence; there was a very real danger in this movie of Harry and Hermione’s relationship being mischaracterized as a budding romantic love during this stretch. A brother/sister sort of friendship exists between them, and Watson and Radcliffe both manage to convey in their performances what Rowling so explicitly details via internal monologue in the book. The small moments give it away, particularly the tension-breaking dance Harry and Hermione share in their tent and a visit to Harry’s parents’ gravesite.
It all comes together under the capable direction of David Yates. After nailing Order of the Phoenix and almost nailing Half-Blood Prince, he brings the fire here. Those who were left doubting after the virtually action-free finale of Half-Blood will be blown away by the riotous mid-air chase that kicks things off here, and the hurried escape from the Weasley wedding, and the tense Ministry of Magic infiltration, and the climactic showdown with the Malfoy clan.
However, Yates greatest achievement in part one of Deathly Hallows is his handling of the potential train wreck that is the middle section of the book, during which our heroes spend several hundred pages on the run, wandering in the woods. The passage of time and the increasing feeling of hopelessness is elegantly related via a series of ponderous extreme long shots highlighting barren, lonely landscapes. Here is where pictures become worth thousands of words; instead of painstakingly running through every detail, Yates simply shows, and he succeeds admirably in the showing.
Also a standout is the huge, hairy chunk of exposition that is the Deathly Hallows fairy tale. It pops up roughly halfway through the book – and, as a result of the two-part adaptation, very close to the end of this first film – as a big chunk of text that has nothing to do with any character we’ve ever known in Rowling’s stories. The challenge of presenting this vital information to a film audience is overcome thanks to the magic of a wholly engaging animated sequence. Not only do you learn what these Deathly Hallows are, you have fun in the learning.
Finally, there’s just the overall tone. This movie is dark. Scary, too. It’s still a family-friendly affair, but those with young children should prepare for a sleepless night or two. Characters die, major ones, and off-screen in several cases. Perhaps too quickly at times, but war is, after all, hell. There is even, I would argue, an improvement on one character’s passing in particular over what’s in the book. It comes in very close to the start of the movie and serves as both an emotional smack in the face and a clever bit of exposition that makes far more sense than it did as it was originally written.
For all that the movie gets right, there are a few notable shortfalls. The worst offender is probably another character death, one that occurs right at the end of the film. It's pulled straight from the pages of the book, but lacks the emotional punch of Rowling’s writing. The character who dies gets a great redemptive moment which ought to please some fans (and enrage some others), but the send-off that follows feels rushed, out of place and strangely hollow.
Also disappointing is the treatment of 12 Grimmauld Place and the house elf Kreacher. In the original story, Harry and his pals spend a great deal of time holed up in the old Order of the Phoenix hideout – complete with an important expository visit from Remus Lupin – before making their move on the Ministry. While there they encounter Kreacher, a hateful little house elf whom they ultimately win over and who plays an important role in the book’s climactic finale. Admittedly, this is less a failure of the film and more the nitpicking of a fan who would’ve liked a more faithful adaptation in certain respects.
Harry, Ron and Hermione never once lay eyes on Hogwarts during these 140+ minutes in Rowling’s universe and that is entirely fitting. For the past 10 years they’ve been having adventures and misadventures there; but the stakes are higher in this final chapter, and the time for lessons is over.
However, the movie arriving in theaters this Friday is only half of the story. The tale of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows won’t be fully told until the second part arrives on July 15 next year. For now, this first part kicks things off in fine fashion, a thoroughly entertaining half of a story that will absolutely please fans of the series.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 arrives in theaters nationwide on November 19, 2010.