Compared to our humble beginnings in The Philosopher’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is so dark that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) decides to drop out of school and go camping instead. And all the adults agree it’s the best idea he’s had in ages. Before you think this sounds like a kid who considers himself smarter than the school system, Harry’s decision to skip his senior year is frequently followed by revelations like, “I have no idea what I’m doing,” and, “He hasn’t a clue what he’s doing.” Stay in school, kids.
So what are we dealing with here? Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned – something we learned back in The Goblet of Fire. Except now his army is complete and he can get to work on dismantling the ministry and committing national genocide. He’s essentially Hitler with no opposition. And magical powers. And a giant pet snake. Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) decide to skip their senior year at Hogwarts School (it’s overrun with Slytherins anyway) in favour of tracking down the remaining hidden pieces of Voldemort’s soul, called “horcruxes”. With these pieces destroyed, Harry will guarantee that Voldemort is mortal when he faces him for the final time – and gauges his eyes out with 16 years of pent-up teenage angst.
First off, you must think of The Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2 as one movie with a really long pause in between. Unlike the book-series-turned-movies that came after, Harry Potter had a pretty good reason for splitting its finale over two cash grabs– I mean films. Even with the extended amount of time the writers were hard pressed to fit in all the finicky details that emerged in that final book. That said, an unfortunately large part of The Deathly Hallows Part 1 passes in a tent feeling lost, sad, and chilly. This definitely sets the mood, firming up the knowledge that Harry has absolutely no idea what he’s doing. In terms of watchability, however, we could probably do with one less tent scene and instead progress the plot a little faster to allow for more coverage of the open flood gates in Part 2.
But with all that forest and those Dover cliffs, The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is a visually pleasing film. The shots have variety (although the colour pallet is damp), playing with wide scenic frames and claustrophobic action. Visually, it flows nicely between cramped closets and open fields, as our characters trudge from one hunch to the next.
The only new character in The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is the new Minister for Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy) – the last British actor not already hired for the films. Other than him, we get to hang out with old favourites one last time. With so many characters to bid farewell, The Deathly Hallows Part 1 can sometimes feel like a point-form presentation of the book; there just isn’t enough time to comfortably explore all these subplots, as interested as we may be. Apparently somewhere along the way Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson) became a werewolf and got engaged to Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy). Apparently Lupin (David Thewlis) and Tonks (Natalia Tena) got married and have another announcement to make that nobody has the time for. Once we leave the adults and their milestones behind, however, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are left to navigate the world on their own, moving from house to woods to cliff side in an effort to be 100% cut off from all society. In Hermione’s words, “We’re alone.”
In an attempt to lighten the mood (I think?) The Deathly Hallows Part 1 takes any chance it can get to show a budding romance between Ron and Hermione. Fine, whatever, add the teenage drama, but there’s so much stuff to cover it starts to feel like a distraction – and it turns poor Harry into the awkward third wheel. While Ron and Hermione gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes, Harry gazes at a stranger’s eye in a shard of glass that’s never explained. I wouldn’t have pegged Harry for a Narcissus.
The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is a great stepping stone to the final movie, but not much more than that. As a stand-alone it’s missing the ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ parts of the beginning-middle-end plot line. We still get to revisit favourite characters when the story calls for it, including lovely Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) who is ever the calm voice of social awkwardness in the face of all her torturers. Her father, a little less so. As a stand-alone movie The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is about a 7/10, combining dark grey cinematography with a dark grey story line and emotionally dark grey characters.