We come to it at last, the battle of our age. Oh wait, that’s the other fantasy series…
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sets in motion the final chapter to the decade-old saga, and like many finales, it remains strictly beholden to the films which preceded it. There’s no point going into this one blind; if you haven’t seen the previous films or read J.K. Rowling’s books, you’re apt to become very lost very quickly. Tons of plot threads need resolving, an appropriately climactic battle must be arranged, and a scorecard is absolutely required to keep track of the cast members (not all of whom survive to the closing credits). Do your homework before walking in; you’ll be better off for it.
In addition, the film represents just the first half of a two-part effort, with the finale arriving next summer. Like Kill Bill and The Lord of the Rings, we can’t see the complete picture yet--even were we to look at this as just one movie instead of the capper to a series--and the dramatic cliffhanger compounds the pieces that have yet to be revealed. Similarly, Deathly Hallows pays the price for previous narrative sloppiness. What’s that mirror shard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) keeps staring at? Why does Kreacher suddenly obey him? If you’d read the books you’d know, but rather than clueing newcomers in, the movie just plows ahead on such details without explanation. It doesn’t prove fatal (and Deathly Hallows Part 2 may rectify things on that front), but it does add some befuddlement to the proceedings.
Again, those flaws arise almost out of necessity, simply because of Deathly Hallows’ overall nature. Thankfully, it never resorts to regurgitation. For the first time, we see nothing of Hogwart’s School of Wizardry, the central locale for the previous six films. Instead, Harry and his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) find themselves on the run. Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has toppled the Ministry of Magic and installed his own regime. Harry finds himself labeled “Undesirable Number 1,” with the entire community turned against him. While dodging the secret police, he searches desperately for Voldemort’s horcruxes--pieces of his soul contained in physical objects--as well as some means to destroy them and thus free the wizarding world of its greatest evil.
The specifics entail a great deal of exposition, and again, copious notes may help for those not steeped in Potterania. Hard-core fans will watch and nod, of course, though Deathly Hallows creates issues for them as well by omitting certain key details (such as Dudley’s final words to Harry). It’s a common complaint for this series, and this one offers fewer excuses since it has more time to develop it.
Against it, however, director David Yates deploys his expected assets with masterful precision. He uses the lonely British countryside to create an overwhelming sense of bleakness, as Harry and his friends find themselves cut off from all human contact. It also serves as the crucible to test their resolve, treating us to a number of sequences where the threesome debate, argue and at times come to blows about what to do next. All of the leads have blossomed into first-rate actors, complimenting the staggering talents of the supporting cast as never before. (The formula runs as follows: “INSERT NAME HERE is pitch perfect as INSERT CHARACTER HERE.” Lather. Rinse. Repeat.)
The meditative nature of such sequences is offset by a few terrific set pieces, notably an attempt to break into the Ministry of Magic and several showdowns with Voldemort’s various minions. Yates injects a modicum of humor into the proceedings without disrupting the overall darkness on display. He also has a canny sense of how wizardly oppression differs little from the more mundane variety, as critics of the new regime are silenced and gray-clad stormtroopers purge the ranks of “undesirables.” Rowling understood the ways in which her fantasy world intersected with our mundane one, providing Deathly Hallows with a fear that has nothing to do with the supernatural. Harry’s justified paranoia grants the film a unique identity--a sense that this truly may be the end and that it may not turn out at all the way we’d like. That’s always been the secret weapon of this series: helping us to share this world without becoming lost amid its minutia. Deathly Hallows holds up that legacy admirably, and if it ends things a tad abruptly, it still leaves us wanting more. Thankfully, the wait won’t be inordinately long.