A whole generation has grown up with Harry Potter. Now in their early twenties and late teens, these young adults have followed the gradual progression into adulthood lock-step with their bespectacled hero. From the pangs of puberty and the tensions that creates, to the harsh realities of adult living, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are the measuring poles that many have defined their formative years. While the magical world of Hogwarts, Quidditch, Diagon Alley, pet owls and wands make Harry’s world a fascinating and inviting one, the core of the series, both books and films, has been the evolution of these three young people.
Never more have we seen this focus on our three friends than in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. The first half of the two-part finale, things are dark for our heroes. The Wizarding world has been infiltrated by the evil Death Eaters, and half-blood and “muggle-born” wizards are being persecuted. Gone are the now-familiar walks down Hogwart’s halls, magical trips to haunted houses and candy shops, exciting Quidditch matches, pet owls, and the light-hearted moments the series has so effectively mastered. Instead, The Deathly Hallows is a character study, and while the ensemble cast made up of England’s best (and upcoming best) are certainly a joy to see, it’s really about Harry, Ron, and Hermione as they attempt to figure out what to do next do defeat Lord Voldemort. There is really not that much more than that plot-wise, as much of the excitement will happen in Part 2. While this makes for a film that is much slower than previous ones, it’s a powerful movie about these kids fully embodying their adult identity.
With such a pared down film, director David Yates has made the gutsy decision to let the acting abilities of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint carry most of the film. While fan favorites—the Weasley Twins, Luna, Dobby, Tonks—are brought forward for what amounts to little more than cameos, it is really the acting of the primary three that makes Part 1 of The Deathly Hallows so fascinating to watch. All have progressed wonderfully in the ten years since the original film, and there is a certain delicate maturity to their performances.
As for splitting The Deathly Hallows into two films, this was probably the best decision Warner Bros. has made with the franchise. They get to milk the franchise a little longer, and fans get a truer to book adaptation. Not only does it allow the film to slowly progress and address nearly every major plot element, it also slows down the actual acting. No longer rushed to squeeze as much into a given 146 minutes, we are allowed moments of silence and contemplation. Character interaction is more thoughtful and emotional. There are long takes of very little talking, and often non-verbal cues explain much more than ten minutes of dialog.
The starkness of The Deathly Hallows is no more exemplified than the journey Harry, Ron and Hermione partake in. Camping across the English countryside, with windy bluffs, cold and dark marshes, quiet and icy rivers, frigid forests, and blustery beaches, The Deathly Hallows is a stunning reminder of the beautiful and wild landscapes of the United Kingdom. Everything in The Deathly Hallows is a world of muted tones, ruined architecture and rugged nature, and a grim and lovely manifestation of the rather dark story. Visually, the Deathly Hallows is a masterpiece of film staging.
Unfortunately, while the acting is admirably performed, those who have not read the books (or read them in a while) will struggle keeping up with what actually happens. Truth be told, not much does. That’s the biggest problem with the film. While Yates has found a smart moment to end the film, and has highlighted the most exciting point of the first half of the book (the Ministry of Magic heist), so little actually happens that it would be impossible to call The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 the best Harry Potter film. That honor still lies arguably with The Prisoner of Azkaban.
However, as the foundation for what will be the ending to one of the biggest franchises in entertainment history, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is a beautiful, dark and sometimes powerful installment of the beloved franchise.