Judging a film like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 by any standard or common sense set of criteria just won’t work: when a story is split into two separate films for no higher purpose than to cynically bilk the movie-going (and dvd-purchasing) public out of their hard-earned cash, it becomes irrelevant how well written or produced it is. This decision is the fundamental, unifying problem that ultimately betrays the film.
In the final installment of J.K. Rowling’s beloved series, the magical world is undergoing the greatest upheaval they could imagine. Dumbledore has died, the Ministry of Magic has been usurped, and Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters reign supreme. Harry, Ron and Hermione escape certain death to a nomadic lifestyle, one that gives them plenty of time to try to figure out how to destroy Voldemort’s horcruxes.
For many viewers, the simple fact of having access to a screen version of their favourite novels will be enough: there is a certain charm to Rowling’s three lead characters that persists despite the often dull adventures she has inflicted upon in them, particularly in the latter books. For those viewers who queued in 2001 for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Parts 1 & 2 of Deathly Hallows will mean they’ve spent nearly a decade with Radcliffe, Watson and Grint. In many cases, those viewers will have grown up with them as close friends.
This gives Deathly Hallows: Part 1 an advantage that can’t be underestimated. One imagines many fans will love watching this tryptych wander (disapparate, whatever) throughout the cold British Winter, and love the hinted-at chance of a chaste love triangle. The fact that this is a 146-minute epic in which nothing really happens might just elude them, but for others this will be inescapable. 146 minutes of aimless wandering and petty rivalry, wrapped up as something with meaning? Hardly.
When action is unavoidable, director David Yates has all but ensured it doesn’t distract from the wandering by making it essentially unwatchable. The sequence in Bathilda Bagshot’s home is a textbook example of how to make a very, very expensive scene a very, very expensive waste of money. Nagini flying here, walls blasting there, characters thrown this way and that: the failure to allow the audience to appreciate what is actually happening sums up Yates’ approach to the other action sequences. Broomsticks whiz and curses shoot out of wands and usually no-one can tell who is shooting at whom.
There are aspects that succeed, including Watson’s performance as Hermione which stands out among her colleagues’s turns. The production design is wonderful, and the CGI character animation – particularly of the house elves – shows just how many years have passed since the rather laughable attempts in the earlier films.
Perhaps the greatest casualty of the decision to split this film in half is the loss of meaning. Two and a half hours of wandering is intended to inform us that lives are at stake, and the deaths of certain major characters punctuate the time but mean little. How can the death of Hedwig barely be worth a second thought? Would Harry be so unmoved by the loss of his longest and most loyal companion, a bird he has owned since the moment of his wizarding awakening? Human characters meet their end with almost no note made of their contribution or passing. Perhaps time can be allowed for grief after the war ends in Part 2, but this leaves Part 1 – perhaps unintentionally – cold.
Revisiting this film after the release of its successor might allow viewers to see it with a kinder eye, but as a film that stands in its own right, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is nothing more than grossly disappointing.Rating: