We have reached the semifinals. Staffed with half the best character actors in Great Britain, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" brings the seventh J.K. Rowling tale to market, reminding both fervent Hogwarts maniacs and the Potter-ambivalent of this series' priorities, its increasingly somber tone, as well as its dedication to one of the rarest of all franchise qualities: actual quality.
At this point in Harry's anguished saga, the saga doesn't care much about the needs of the newcomer. Director David Yates's film, his third in the string of Potter adventures, will not be for everyone. It takes its time. It has a heavy heart, and a sluggish middle passage. By conventional "wow" standards it offers the least magic and conventional energy of the films so far. Much of screenwriter Steve Kloves' adaptation covers the lengthy road trip in search of the Horcruxes, with Death Eaters eternally threatening and the skies eternally portending eternal doom. Halving the series' final chapter, Kloves probably couldn't avoid fashioning a script that comes with the faint sound of a drumroll, setting up the finale. (The last film arrives in July 2011.)
Still: We've come this far. It's been most gratifying to watch Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint grow up in their parts, and to watch the aptness of the initial casting pay off.
What works especially well this time? The little things. Alexandre Desplat's musical score is the best of the series so far, never going for bombast when an undercurrent of emotion or menace or comfort will do instead. The first time you hear the sickening, sliding underscoring accompanying Snape's arrival at Voldemort's bi-monthly meeting, or whatever it is, you know you're in excellent compositional hands. And if you think a film's music is a minor consideration, your ears have been lying to you. The story-within-the-story regarding the deathly hallows is visualized by way of shadow-puppet style animation, and the effect is quite beautiful.
Yates is best in the smaller scenes, less distinctive with the action set pieces. The Death Eaters' opening attack on Harry and colleagues, each disguised as Harry to throw the villains off the scent, does the job, though impersonally. I liked the grace notes, though, such as the way Dumbledore's last will and testament floats in mid-air and unfolds, carefully, so that Bill Nighy (as the Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour) can deliver a wee bit of plot. I appreciate the way Yates and company refuse to wallop this material with effects bombast, at least every second, as if trying to attack the audience with a Whomping Willow.
I'd be wary of taking kids under 9 or 10, unless they're really, really into Harry Potter, and have read the book in question. Then again: The success of Rowling's novels and of their film adaptations has proven that kids can grapple with darkness as well as light, and should. Kids, like adults, respond to this universe, even as the storm clouds gather in ever-grimmer patterns, because the relationships between Harry, Hermione and Ron are built on a foundation of love and respect, yet come with all the usual torments of adolescence. With or without the Dark Forces.
Yes, it may be taking Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, he of the exquisite final consonants) forever and a day to square off against his bespectacled adversary. But the six previous Potter films grossed $5.4 billion worldwide. With that kind of financial imperative it's something of a miracle the Potter films have been, on the whole, good. One or two, very good. One or two (the first two), less good. This one's good.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality).
Running time: 2:26.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter); Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley); Emma Watson (Hermione Granger); Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort); Toby Jones (Dobby); Bill Nighy (Scrimgeour); Rhys Ifans (Lovegood); Alan Rickman (Snape); Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix); Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid).
Credits: Directed by David Yates; written by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; produced by David Heyman, David Barron and Rowling. A Warner Bros. Pictures release.