For all of you who think the Harry Potter franchise can do no wrong (and of course they will have already seen this newest installment by now), you’ll be happy to know that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One is by far the best of the films so far, a close second to the third film (my own previous favorite), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Even with stellar casting every step of the way (with some of the UK’s finest actors happy to join in), it was not always clear that the three young stars would continue to mature and carry the films at the level needed as the stories became darker and more adult. I was even a bit worried that the adorable Rupert Grint was simply not a good enough actor to cut the mustard; earlier films found him working too hard at acting, with absurd facial expressions (what experienced thespians call mugging). But he’s grown into the role beautifully, and it’s Ron Weasley who undergoes the darkest and most troubling transformation of the three in this, the sixth and penultimate film in the series.
The story begins where it left off, with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron leaving their families to protect them from the increasingly dangerous pursuit of the seedy underbelly of Hogwarts’ Old Boy (and Hag) network. Led by Severus Snape (didn’t he used to be a good guy? Alan Rickman is so much more interesting as a villain, in any case) and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and son Draco (Tom felton), as well as Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the team bent on destroying Harry and those close to him also now includes Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, whose career has moved from period dramas to spooky fare, thanks perhaps to her marriage to Tim Burton), and an assortment of mercenaries and Death eaters. But despite the three friends’ attempts to leave their loved ones out of it, the Weasleys and various others (like Hagrid and Professor Lupin) risk their own lives to protect Harry. As various threats close in and Ron decides to abandon the cause, Harry and Hermione become closer, and doggedly do their best to fight back against the evil magics aimed at them.
There is more, of course. There are horcruxes and woodland creatures made of light. There’s a tale of three brothers who cheat death (the “Deathly Hallows” of the title is rendered in a brilliant animated segment narrated by Hermione). There’s a cross country journey that finds our intrepid witch and wizards camping on limestone cliffs and beside lake valleys. There are some intriguing new characters played by more cream of the crop British actors (Rhys Ifans, John Hurt, Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton). And there’s a lovely vignette featuring a song by Nick Cave.
There are times when the film seems to skim over seemingly-significant plot details and actions, there is a wonderful mood and pacing to this film, full of suspense and an increasing sense of forboding and finality. The visual effects and overall production design are excellent, perhaps the best yet, despite having very few scenes set in the grand halls of Hogwarts. The animated sequence I mentioned earlier is one of the film’s finest moments, and it’s some of the most stunning animation I’ve seen anywhere in recent memory.
Those who have read the books know how it ends. But it’s a testament to the film franchise’s artful adaptation that one need not have read any Rowlings’ books to appreciate this epic story. And I see no reason not to break Deathly Hallows into two parts: it gives fans one last film to look forward to, allows the story to be told in more detailed fashion, and, of course, makes the studios another wad of cash. And Deathly Hallows does end on a razor-edged note, perfectly poised to make us all groan and wish that Part Two was not so far away.