Was 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' split into two movies so that the franchise could make more money? Well, yes. But maybe not just for that reason. As it turns out, 'Deathly Hallows: Part 1' is a quietly thrilling and artful chapter in the eight-part series. It doesn't stand on its own, exactly, any more than the first half of a TV two-parter would, but it isn't merely set-up, either. If you think of 'Half-Blood Prince' and the two 'Deathly Hallows' entries as a trilogy that concludes the Potter saga, 'Part 1' is a terrific middle.
You will recall the somber way we left things at the end of 'Half-Blood Prince.' Things aren't any cheerier now. The director, David Yates -- who will have made half of the eight films by the time it's over -- instantly revives the tension by starting on a tight close-up of Bill Nighy as Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour, who is assuring his constituents that everything is fine, just fine. We know it isn't true. And look at Scrimgeour's eyes. Does he even believe it?
There's a palpable sense of gloom as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hermione (Emma Watson) leave their homes, not bound for Hogwarts, but headed to war against Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Assisted by the members of the Order of the Phoenix, Harry and Hermione converge on the Weasley home, where there is to be a wedding between Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour. Everyone is aware that this may be the last festive moment for a long time.
And boy, is it ever. The last one, I mean. Harry, Hermione, and Ron (Rupert Grint) are tasked with locating the remaining horcruxes while hiding from the newly fascist Ministry of Magic ("You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide!" the new minister declares), which has been infiltrated by Voldemort's Death Eaters.
Those who have read the book will remember that ah, yes, this is the one with all the camping. A great deal of time passes (for the characters and for us) while the trio waits, desperate for clues, uncertain what to do next. Ron is frustrated that Dumbledore didn't leave more explicit instructions, and disillusioned in Harry's status as their leader. Harry, too, catches glimpses of his old mentor in shards of a broken mirror and pleads with him for help.
While this section of the movie isn't exactly brimming with action, it's impressive how Yates (working from Steve Kloves' screenplay) fills it with internal meaning. 'Half-Blood Prince' began to establish just how serious the stakes were for these characters, and the stark, wintry portions of 'Deathly Hallows: Part 1' expand on it. The familiar warmth of Hogwarts has been stripped away: Harry, Ron, and Hermione are out in the world now. The feeling of cheerful fantasy that pervaded the first couple films has gradually given way to something closer to horror, especially as Voldemort and the insane Bellatrix (Helena Bonham Carter) rev up the torture and mayhem. Stuff just got real, yo.
Mind you, the tone isn't oppressively gloomy. There are light moments here and there: Brendan Gleeson's few scenes as the sentimental Mad-Eye Moody, several interludes with polyjuice potion, anything involving Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch). The story of the three deathly hallows is recounted in a delightfully inventive fashion, like something Tim Burton would do. Yates' point isn't to depress us, but to engage us in the seriousness of the situation. At every turn, he reminds us that this series is really about the friendship and love between its characters. There is more hugging (and kissing) than I remember there being in the previous films, along with the sense that such affection is more meaningful now.
We miss the characters who are absent, though I think that's part of the point. Snape (Alan Rickman) and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) have barely any screen time; Miss McGonagall has none. But we know what's coming -- we know we're headed for a spectacular finish. Those who have read the book will realize that with as much material as 'Part 1' covers, 'Part 2' must be focused almost entirely on battles. Consider our appetite whetted.