Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I (United States/United Kingdom, 2010)

November 17, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I Poster

From a purely business standpoint, the decision to bifurcate Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a winner. Instead of cashing in about $300 million at the domestic box office, Warner Brothers can now count on at least $600 million (bigger world-wide). And, if the second part is released in 3-D (as has been threatened), the surcharge could boost that total to stratospheric levels. Still, what's good for the cash box isn't always good for the audience. From a creative perspective, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One is a disappointment. It's tough to review what amounts to half a movie since, by its nature, the story remains rough-hewn and unfinished. A year from now, once both pieces are available and stitched together into a mammoth 5-hour epic, perhaps the experience will more closely resemble The Return of the King than Return of the Jedi.

With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it appears that the filmmakers have given up on making the saga accessible to those not steeped in Potter lore - or at least those who have not read the books. There were indications of this in the previous film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but it's more evident in this one. Lacking a handy cheat-sheet, it's almost impossible to understand everything that's going on. For example, where does Brendan Gleeson's Mad-Eye Moody disappear to? Readers of the book know, but you have to listen carefully to get the rushed explanation in the movie. His fate is not shown; it's relayed in a perfunctory fashion in the midst of a chaotic scene. There are other problems along this line - characters appearing who have never been properly introduced (or may not be remembered). Where did John Hurt come from? It would take an impressive memory to recall his previous Harry Potter appearance, which occurred in 2001. Subplots are concluded with nary a word of explanation. Those who know the books won't be the least bit put off or confused - they have the necessary background. Neophytes (do those exist?) or those who have experienced the Harry Potter universe solely through the cinematic representations will experience at least a degree of frustration.

Speaking of frustration, there's the ending. As one might anticipate, it's a cliffhanger, although not of the sort that will have fans throwing empty popcorn containers at the screen. The story simply stops, and that's annoying. It's like sex where one of the participants has a change of heart after foreplay. There's some enjoyment to be had but that's overshadowed by the desire to bring the experience to a completion. All the previous Harry Potter movies have existed as self-contained stories within a larger framework - even The Half-Blood Prince, which was as much set-up as narrative. That's not the case with The Deathly Hallows Part One. There's no payoff. The movie builds erratically to the moment when the end credits start rolling. After sacrificing nearly 2 1/2 hours to this movie, there's a sense that more is deserved. Perhaps that "more" is waiting for us, and The Deathly Hallows Part Two will redeem Part One but, as I write this review, I have only the first movie to make judgments on, and those are mixed.

The Deathly Hallows picks up shortly after the end of The Half-Blood Prince, with Dumbledore dead, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) ascending, and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) in dire straits. A confederation of Harry's friends and allies, which includes Hermione (Emma Watson), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Ginny (Bonnie Wright), puts the chosen Harry under their protection. However, an attempt to spirit him to safety causes a trap to be sprung, and Harry is still no closer to finding the remaining six horcruxes needed to render Voldemort vulnerable. After the death of the Minister of Magic (Bill Nighy), the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters take control, and Harry becomes Public Enemy #1. He, Hermione, and Ron must then embark upon a quest to discover the whereabouts of the horcruxes and the means by which they can be destroyed.

The strong suits of director David Yates, returning after helming The Half-Blood Prince, are his sense of atmosphere and his choreography of action scenes. There are some thrilling ones in The Deathly Hallows Part One, including (believe it or not) a car chase. Yates' high octane approach to action is worthy of what might find in another venerable British series - that of 007. Yates also takes Harry Potter to the most deliciously dark places it has yet gone. This is bleak film, with desperation overlaying everything. If The Sorcerer's Stone was daybreak, this is a few strokes before midnight. The sunshine has been vanquished. The humor has been stripped away. The romance causes pain and loss, not giddiness. Yeats follows the trajectory of the books, taking us away from lighthearted children's adventures, through the thorny jungles of teen angst, and into the dark world of adulthood. It's a good thing the planned 3-D conversion was abandoned for this installment. With the darkening of images that occurs as a result of the process, it would have been nearly impossible to discern detail, so steeped in shadow and blackness are many of the scenes.

The pace is uneven, with sluggish passages interspersed with taut action scenes and more meaningful instances of character interaction and exposition. There's an entertainingly original animated sequence (telling the story behind the title), but its inclusion seems more an indulgence than a necessity. Approximately half the running length follows the intrepid trio on a camping expedition - something that might work well on the written page but tends to drag on screen. The unhurried approach also defuses some of the suspense, although it helps to build the sense of dread. The Deathly Hallows Part One is working up to the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, but that's all it does - works up to it. From beginning to end, this movie is a study in anticlimax. There's a sense of the narrative going in circles and not advancing much. Quests are a fantasy staple, but rarely has a movie been made in which there is so little progress. Even Frodo's trek to Mordor, despite taking three very long movies to complete, wasn't this torpid.

I suspect Harry Potter die-hards will love what Yates has accomplished with the characters and the movie. The screenplay, by Steve Kloves, who adapted all the books except The Order of the Phoenix, sticks close to the text and is more rigorous in doing so than any installment since The Chamber of Secrets. Kloves' unwillingness to cut is one of the reasons why the film had to be broken into two pieces, although one suspects the decision to turn The Deathly Hallows into a double-bill was made before Kloves started writing. Since a majority of the Harry Potter audience is comprised of devotees, The Deathly Hallows will go over well. For non-initiates, watching the movie may prove to be a discouraging experience. This might be good Harry Potter, but it's not a good movie, at least in the traditional sense.

The three-star rating amounts to an optimistic "Incomplete," and I reserve the right to downgrade it if Part Two fails to meet expectations. Seen as a self-contained story, The Deathly Hallows Part One does not deserve an unqualified recommendation, but this movie was never intended to represent more than a piece of a whole. In the history of Harry Potter, there will only be a lonely eight-month period in which one can view Part One without Part Two, and we're in that window as I write this. Based on the novel, The Deathly Hallows Part Two has the potential to be a tremendous motion picture and, if that's the case, Part One will become a worthy lead-in. However, for the period during which it must stand on its own, the legs are wobbly. Despite providing an opportunity to spend 147 minutes in the company of people we have grown to know and love over the years and advancing the narrative toward its final cataclysmic confrontation, The Deathly Hallows Part One underachieves. At a time when Harry Potter should be soaring to new heights, it remains curiously grounded.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I (United States/United Kingdom, 2010)

Run Time: 2:27
U.S. Release Date: 2010-11-19
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1