Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One is the beginning of the end of one of the most unique film series in cinematic history — a single story spanning eight films and using the same actors as they aged from childhood into adolescence. Although author J.K. Rowling took seven books to tell her tale, the last installment was so long (more than 800 pages) that the filmmakers decided to divide it into two movies.
But judging by Part One, which is hampered by a sluggish pace and long stretches in which absolutely nothing happens, a single three-hour epic a la The Return of the King might have served the material better. Fans of the novels, however, won’t mind, since the film appears to make room for every single story beat and character moment — even those another adaptation might have deemed superfluous.
Directed with great, gloomy style by David Yates and adapted by Steve Kloves (who has scripted almost all the Potter adaptations), the movie has some marvelous special effects, a noticeably darker tone than previous entries and action that finally leaves the suffocating confines of Hogwarts.
By now, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) have become endearing and well-known (the first film came out a whopping nine years ago). We’ve watched the actors mature alongside their characters, and the movie — which includes many, many scenes of camping and talking that could have easily been condensed — allows us to bask in their presence and friendship and even briefly entertain a notion of what might have been (such as a romance between Harry and Hermione, enacted by a slow dance that was not in the novel but feels magical onscreen).
The series has also amassed a formidable roster of villains, all of whom appear at the start of the film in a meeting presided over by the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who really needs to step up soon and prove just how nefarious he really is (enough talk already). Seeing all the bad guys together shows just how big a challenge Harry and his pals face: I wish the movie spent a little more time inside the villains’ den, showing their scheming and cackling.
The Potter movies have become grander and better-looking with each installment, and Deathly Hallows: Part One is no exception. There are some wonderfully cinematic sequences, such as a gorgeously animated interlude detailing the story of the eponymous hallows, or a sequence in which everyone fighting on the side of good is transformed into a Harry look-alike to throw off the Death Eaters on his trail.
In the film’s best scene, Harry, Ron and Hermione venture into the streets of London, don the identities of grown-ups and infiltrate the Ministry of Magic, a fun, suspenseful set piece that reminds you how much fun these movies can be when the filmmakers have a juicy scenario. I was also happy to see Helena Bonham Carter, as the unhinged Bellatrix Strange, get some screen time (and even kill off one of the heroes).
But Rowling didn’t necessarily write these books with movies in mind, and the lack of natural cinematic elements make the middle portion of the film a tough slog. A lot of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One feels like slushy set-up for the climactic all-out battle due in theaters next summer. The movie doesn’t even give us the expected cliffhanger ending, although I’d be lying if I said I’m not eager to see how everything turns out. I’ll be happy just to see the enjoyably odious Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) get his. Don’t let me down, Deathly Hallows: Part Two.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton, Brendan Gleeson, Rhys Ifans, David Thewlis, Imelda Staunton.
Director: David Yates.
Writer: Steve Kloves. Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling.
Producers: David Barron, David Heyman.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 146 minutes. Violence, frightening images, a prevailing sense of doom for our intrepid heroes. Opens Friday Nov. 19 at area theaters.