The last time I watched a 'Harry Potter' movie, I didn't like it. The installment in question was 2004's 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,' and by all accounts it's considered one of the best films in the franchise as a whole. On the other hand, I really enjoyed 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' way back in 2001, and even the biggest Potter fans don't have many nice things to say about it, at least in retrospect. Otherwise, I've neither seen the other films nor read their source material, nor followed the story, even from a pop culture perspective, which of course makes me ideally suited to review the first half of the last film in this iconic series.
Of course, I'm only kidding. And Cinematical did indeed enlist a qualified member of our team of reviewers to provide a more serious and knowledgeable critique of the film (see Eric D. Snider's review). But as an outsider to the works of J.K. Rowling, and a nonfan (via disinterest, not dislike) of their big-screen iterations, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1' is nevertheless a well-constructed, competently-told and generally engaging tale that conveys an appropriate sense of finality and suffers only from being but part of the whole story.
Even without a road map of the film's many characters and their relationships with one another, the plot is pretty simple, and remarkably clear: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is the only obstacle between Lord Voldemort's (Ralph Fiennes) total control over both the wizard and human worlds, and he has dispatched an army of delightfully-named Death Eaters to retrieve the young prodigy. Enlisting his Gryffindor BFFs Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), Harry takes off for parts unknown until he can figure out how to stop Voldemort, in the meantime crossing paths with a variety of the colorful characters he's previously encountered during his days at Hogwarts.
Cinematically speaking, director David Yates clearly has a comfortable grasp on the material, and creates sequences that are exciting and evocative without making them melodramatic – or, one supposes, more melodramatic than things might naturally get for young wizards fighting for their lives. Although some of the film language he uses short-changes the clarity of some sequences in favor of dramatic intensity – particularly during a forest chase where the camera swoops in and darts around the action, but never defines the geography – for the most part Yates manages to maximize the visceral impact of action sequences and then be still or reflective enough to do the same for the dramatic ones as well. And except for one moment where Harry's behavior doesn't quite seem clear (and is never explained), the opening motorcycle chase is one of the most thrilling and fun action scenes in a film this year.
But Yates' handling of the scene where the three of them adopt the identities of members of the Ministry of Magic in an attempt to recover a magical locket is both comedically and dramatically pretty brilliant. It's a testament to the actors involved that they really convince the audience that they're being "played" by Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, rather than the fact that they're playing them, but Yates slowly and effectively builds the stakes by guiding the actors to replicate their younger counterparts' posture and behavior, and still creating a world where the actual people's loved ones and acquaintances interact with them as they would to fulfill their own needs.
That said, there are a few lingering questions that remain about the characters, and some details about the world that aren't quite satisfying, even if (according to companions who know the books) their depiction is accurate to Rowling's text. For example, has Ron's crush on Hermione really gone on for seven movies without him saying one thing about being hopelessly in love with her? Because Harry is as stand-up a guy as you're likely to have as a best friend, but even if he wasn't, after five years of pining for this girl without making a move, you really couldn't blame Harry – or anyone else – if they tried to take Hermione up to the wizard world's equivalent of Make-Out Point. Seriously, this Ross-and-Rachel stuff seven films (or even books) on feels kind of redundant and creates obvious, banal drama between the two characters, but mostly it just makes Ron seem kind of pathetic, which I suspect is not meant to be the case.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of "that dude died" scenes in the film. Rest assured I don't know characters well enough to spoil their identities, but on at least two or three occasions, Harry, Hermione and Ron escape to safety only to learn later from one of their protectors that this guy or that guy ate it during the scuffle. I suppose with an ensemble as huge as the one created for this series, it's impossible to give every character a proper send-off, but mentioning their deaths in passing seems glib if not disrespectful to the fans, much less the characters themselves.
At the same time, it seems as if Rowling and/or the filmmakers felt compelled to shoehorn every character ever created into this last film just to give them a sort of cinematic farewell, but as a result some of them pop up for mere minutes, and in one case, no more than 30 seconds. (Of course, for all I know those characters figure more heavily into the second half of the story, but "being freed and then teleported to safety" shouldn't comprise the sum total of an actor's character motivations.)
Speaking of the teleportations, am I the only who thinks that effect is actually really scary? Notwithstanding the rest of the film's melancholy, creepy, monstrous or all-around terrifying imagery, I jumped a little in my seat every time Harry and co. swirled up into nothingness, zipped through the magical space-time continuum, and popped out somewhere else. Maybe it's just the volume of the accompanying sound effect, but a few times I thought they were being kidnapped, or turned into double-churned wizards or something.
All that said, I really did mostly like the movie, even though a whole lot of it is basically Harry, Ron and Hermione reaching into a bottomless bag to retrieve a tent that looks small on the outside, but inside has multiple levels and antechambers and stuff. There is also a serious lot of the three of them reflecting on how much danger they're in, although the only real danger they end up encountering is what they attract or unleash themselves. (Where are all of those deeply-concerned friends, family and faculty members to figure out where they are and protect them from Voldemort's noseless onslaught of evil?)
Suffice it to say that I look forward to the onslaught of responses explaining all of the things I didn't understand, or condemning me to a life of muggledom because I haven't shown the film or the series as a whole enough respect. But really my only reaction is that 'Harry Potter' is not an important part of my personal pop culture landscape, so while I politely decline the opportunity to learn more, I sincerely respect the love and appreciation audiences have shown this material since its inception. In which case, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1' is technically and artistically a well-made movie, but it's not going to earn the franchise any new fans; but then again, it doesn't seem like it needs them, either, so perhaps it's no great loss to the current ones, much less the series as a whole.