Six films. The highest grossing franchise in the history of film. The same core cast for every film. One decade. None of this has a precedent. It will probably never happen again. It is only as it comes to a close that we can look back at the monumental triumph these films represent. Does the final chapter get off to a good start?
The end has begun. 9 years ago this weekend, a young boy by the name of Harry Potter entered a world of witchcraft and wizardry on screen for the first time. Now we bear witness to the first half of one of the most highly anticipated series finales in movie history. David Yates, director of both Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince, returns for the 5 hour conclusion, and as neither of the previous films could be considered the series’ best, was surely not the fan favorite to finish things off (I was among the many praying for Alfonso Cuaron to return). He had a long way to go to prove his mettle with the weight of 6 adaptations worth of trimmed scenes and deleted plotlines to account for in a wrap up. To do it in one film would have been a horrible mistake, as there was barely enough time to fit it all into the last book, let alone a stripped down cinematic experience. My biggest criticism of the book itself was that it simultaneously invented the way of ending the series, and ended the series in the same novel. Having a whole movie to develop the quest prior to the operatic finish seemed like a terrific move, and indeed, this may be my favorite Harry Potter film to date.
The best compliment I can pay the movie is that it draws easy comparisons to another great penultimate chapter, The Empire Strikes Back. Front-loaded with action, it does a terrific job raising the stakes, especially in its opening minutes. The pre-credits sequence is beautifully done, and Voldemort’s Death Eater meeting is genuinely terrifying. Once we get past the escape from Privet Drive (which has a particularly inspired deviation from the book which allows for a more heart-wrenching end to a favorite character) things start to slow down. The feeling of hopelessness and uncertainty creeps into everything, as the characters themselves have no idea what it is they’re supposed to be doing. It all comes together in an emotional character-driven conclusion that acts as a perfect setup for part 2, and the best place they could have chosen to divide the films. Just like Empire, we are left both extremely satisfied and incredibly excited for what happens next, making the 8 month gap feel almost like an eternity.
From an acting standpoint, this movie is a bit of a revelation. Our three leads have finally come into their own as performers, and each one delivers beyond anything I could have anticipated going in. They’re genuinely terrific, especially in the quiet scenes they share together, and compared to the previous chapters it’s almost night and day. The scale of this film is a lot smaller than its predecessors, as a road trip movie without the grandeur of Hogwarts is less concerned with the comings and goings of secondary characters. The supporting parts will come back in full force for the second half, but here we mostly avoid them here, and it gives the story a much more focused emotional through-line. It’s the first time these three have really had to carry one of the films entirely on their own, and they prove more than up to the challenge.
The cinematography (with the exception of a handful of awkwardly chosen handheld shots) is uniformly beautiful, and the sound design is as strong as it’s ever been. All of the visual effects are slick and top notch, leaving little doubt that Warnerbros did not skimp on the budget for either half. Thankfully, the studio decided to eschew their original post-processed 3D plans, as neither the production team nor the executives believed that the quality would be good enough with the time they had to work with. Part 2 is still slated for the 3D treatment, but one hopes that the extra time will at least improve the conversion to a watchable standard.
As a single film, Harry Potter and the Dealthly Hallows Part 1 is exactly the setup you want for a finale, while being able to stand on its own among the best installments of the franchise. It does everything you want it to do, hits every emotional level you hope that it would, and gets all but a handful of small moments incredibly right. Its flaws are enough to prevent it from being a perfect adaptation, but anyone who loves the books will find it incredibly entertaining and enjoyable. My hat is certainly off to David Yates and also to Alexandre Desplat whose score manages to be unique and vibrant without losing its impact. I couldn’t be more excited for Part 2… and that’s enough for me to consider this one a rousing success.
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