Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 isn’t the best Harry Potter film so far. It’s not the funniest or the most action-packed although it has plenty of moments of levity and breath-taking excitement. But it’s the one film most deserving of audience respect and admiration because it’s the first Harry Potter to cast aside the comfort of Hogwarts. In place of Good Times with Magic, Deathly Hallows – Part 1 is quiet, contemplative, and sorrowful. What you’ve come to expect from a Harry Potter film is gone and in its place is a more difficult movie but one that is ultimately more rewarding.
At the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) vowed that he would not return to Hogwarts for his final year. Instead, he must now find and destroy five “horcruxes”, items which hold pieces of the soul of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and provide him with immortality. If Harry can destroy all the horcruxes, then he’ll be able to defeat Voldemort and save the world. This task is made slightly more difficult by the fact that the wizarding world is falling to Voldemort’s army of Death Eaters who are not only hunting Harry down, but also infiltrating the government. Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson) join Harry in his dangerous mission but their search puts the trio’s friendship to the test.
That friendship is the core of Half-Blood Prince. There’s no more quidditch, wacky magic classes, or supernatural creatures. Like the book, Deathly Hallows is about the struggle to find your own way when you no longer have the structure that school provides. While compacting the seventh book into one movie could have shaped the story into a more traditional mold, splitting the novel into two parts—while clearly done in an attempt to make more money from the franchise—also provides the largest challenge. There’s not a lot of forward momentum in the plot and so director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves place the drama in the hands of the characters.
I’m once again grateful that this series never recast its lead actors. While it’s possible that new actors could have done these characters justice, watching Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint make Harry, Hermoine, and Ron their own over the past decade pays tremendous dividends. This film truly belongs to them as we see the trio pushed to the brink. And yet the film isn’t afraid to stick to the pacing of the book and drop a character for a good chunk of the runtime. It isn’t afraid to have a quiet scene where two characters just slowly dance (to a Nick Cave song, no less!) in an effort to lift their spirits. Most remarkable, it isn’t afraid to juggle tones from comic to thrilling to melancholy all within a short time span. And most remarkably: it all feels completely organic to the story.
It’s to his great credit that Yates can keep these slow-paced scenes captivating and then easily switch to the comfort of a well-timed joke or intense action scene. Despite an emphasis on these characters being lost, both directionally and spiritually, Deathly Hallows – Part 1 is still a movie that knows how to have fun. It just always mixes in the thrills with the sorrow. You can have a high-speed broom chase, but not everyone will make it out unscathed. You can have a funny and thrilling heist scene, but there will be the undertones of Nazi Germany. It’s a movie where a scene can begin with someone getting flushed down a toilet and end with a critical injury and yet somehow it all works.
However, Deathly Hallows – Part 1 is such a delicate balancing act that every wobble is a bit more pronounced than it would be in an earlier film that had a tighter structure and a faster pace. There’s one scene that goes a bit too far in showing a character his deepest fears. One character’s death is so rushed that it’s difficult to tell if he/she even dies. Also, Deathly Hallows – Part 1 doesn’t really have a climax as much as it has a good stopping point.
Despite these minor missteps, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 is a triumph. It eschews the safety the series has brought so far not just in story but in tone. David Yates and his leading actors have managed to tell a story steeped in uncertainty with the utmost confidence.