Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is a remarkably emotional, entertaining and gripping experience, even accepting that no Harry Potter movie will ever be as rich and rewarding as the book it's based on. Thrusting its central three characters outside the familiar confines of Hogwarts and professors and exams and school chums, the film moves episodically but swiftly, following Harry, Ron and Hermione's journey to stop Voldemort past stunning landscapes, peril around every corner, and a few near-swipes with death. The scuffles are all relatively minor, of course, and Voldemort merely lurks either in shadows and flashbacks, but the movie builds with propulsive, convincing dread toward the final battle Harry and his fans have anticipated all his life.
The great relief of Deathly Hallows Part 1 isn't that they get the details and characters right-- that's a given in these movies-- but that it almost never feels like a dull recitation of the events we know so well. Cutting J.K. Rowling's second book in half allows the story to play more closely to its original beats, building anticipation and character in long arcs rather than rushed moments, finding apt visual metaphors for some of the book's talkier moments and even adding a few new scenes that take advantage of cinema in a way the films have never had time to do before. Infusing some scenes with added lightness and smartly condensing where possible, director David Yates better captures both the playful and solemn tones of J.K. Rowling's writing, making Harry's wildest and most dangerous journey also one of great adventure and growth.
With Dumbledore dead and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) ascending to greater power, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) drops out of Hogwarts to set off on the quest the headmaster left him with: to find the Horcruxes where Voldemort has stowed away pieces of his soul, rendering him a shell of a human but also immortal. At the same time some posthumous Dumbledore biographies have caused Harry to doubt the greatness of the wizard he idolized, and it doesn't help that Dumbledore bequeathed to Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) three items that don't seem all that helpful for their quest. With just a few clues to follow and the Voldemort-controlled Ministry of Magic hunting them down, the trio hide out in remote countryside locations and largely chase their own tail for the bulk of the film, coming upon leads that almost always nearly result in their deaths. Near the end of the film they come upon something called the Deathly Hallows (elegantly explained in a shadow theater animated sequence), legendary objects that fascinated Dumbledore and add a new wrinkle to Harry's already cumbersome quest.
Realizing they're stuck with a middle chapter that ends in a delicious cliffhanger, screenwriter Steve Kloves and Yates sharpen the film's focus on the characters, giving us more time than ever to watch Harry, Ron and Hermione navigate each others' heightened emotions after years of tightly bonded friendship. Ron has developed deep feelings for Hermione and she him, but he also feels like the third wheel among Harry and Hermione's horcrux-hunting plans; Harry, for his part, is even lonelier on his quest witnessing his best friends' fledgling romance. From a tender, friendly dance between Harry and Hermione that wasn't in the book to Ron's great moment of triumph, the three sell all the film's strongest moments, putting in their best performances of the franchise and building well off years of growing up together on the screen. Watson nails Hermione's logical drive with a touch of goofy self-awareness, while Grint is always ready with aptly timed one-liners and the most relatable character; Radcliffe, though still struggling with the weight of his heroic role, shines in an early scene when six other characters are transformed into Harry look-alikes.
The usual roster of British acting talent is largely shoved to the sidelines here, though Fiennes, Alan Rickman's Snape, Tom Felton's Draco Malfoy and especially Imelda Staunton's Dolores Umbridge make memorable villainous cameos. But with so much of the film taking place in the forests and beaches where Harry, Ron and Hermione make their plans, the returns to the wizarding world-- like a heist at the Ministry of Magic, or a supremely spooky visit to Harry's childhood home-- feel exhilarating, not exhausting. Rhys Ifans pops up as the batty and anxious Xenophilius Lovegood, and the less said about Hazel Douglas's silent, aged Bathilda Bagshot, the better the terrifying surprise. Freed from the school-year structure that defined the first six films, Deathly Hallows feels in his fleetest, strongest moments like a day off from school, left to explore the world from a different angle and come back with surprises-- some scary, some thrilling.
The efficient pace of the film takes out some of the better small moments that wrapped up subplots-- the Dursleys are dispatched with barely a word, Harry's visit to his parents' grave is too truncated, and though Draco Malfoy's silent hesitation in front of Harry near the end of the film speaks volumes, it still misses some of that character's fascinating development into a flawed hero. Still, Yates has learned well after directing three Potter films, and hits cleanly at the heart of the story in a way that should satisfy the diehards and at least give casual fans something more to enjoy amid some confusing details that will doubtlessly go over their heads. Though lacking some of the depth and engrossing pleasure of Rowling's novels, but Deathly Hallows Part 1 is one step closer to the mark, and plenty of reason to look forward to the grand finale to come.
Looking for an alternate opinion? Read Josh's 3 star review of The Deathly Hallows right here.