By Tracy Lum
Dueling sparks and explosions burst out in a dingy London diner, interrupting the cool silence of the dark night. Two Death Eaters, stunned, fall to the ground, while three young wizards pant beneath an overturned table. Wands ready, Harry, Ron and Hermione have just faced their first real battle on an action-packed search for the Dark Lord’s seven horcruxes.
A pervasive darkness shrouds the glimmers of hope and comedy in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I,” directed by David Yates. For the first time, the trio has left the safety of Hogwarts and home behind, and the challenges that lie ahead are ominous. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) use their respective skills to piece together the clues that a now-deceased Dumbledore left behind to uncover the locations of Voldemort’s horcruxes—the pieces of his soul that allow him to defy death time and again. Along the way, they face unimaginable dangers, some of which prove fatal for their fellow wizards and magical creatures.
In the first part of the final film in the series, time moves swiftly. Yates never lets the trio linger in one place for too long. Gone are many of the intimate, nostalgic moments J.K. Rowling’s book includes—Harry doesn’t have the opportunity to forgive Dudley. The three don’t spend enough time in 12 Grimmauld Place to forge an emotional connection to Kreacher the house-elf before they storm the Ministry of Magic. Their stay the woods waiting for a new sign or clue doesn’t seem long enough to justify Ron’s frustration and departure.
In contrast to the book, action propels the trio toward the ultimate goal of defeating the Dark Lord. Battle scenes cast in high-contrast lighting depict fancy wandwork that requires no spoken spells. Handheld camera movement energizes chase scenes and instills a sense of real desperation and fear. The blood is real, the death is real.
Still, the film fulfills its share of emotional moments. The camera tracks Harry walking through the deserted 4 Privet Drive, returning to the closet where the story began. He is grown now; he cannot enter his old bedroom without crouching. The film shows Hermione’s tear-streaked face as she erases herself from her parents’ memories. Harry and Hermione dance together in their tent during a rare moment of calm after Ron has abandoned them in the forest.
The actors themselves have grown. Laced with flashbacks from the previous films, the seventh tugs at heartstrings as it juxtaposes images from Harry, Ron and Hermione’s earlier adventures with ones from their current quest. A bulked-up Rupert Grint proves himself a worthy actor. Emma Watson has finally stopped overacting by waggling her eyebrows in an attempt to garner more attention and screen time. Daniel Radcliffe has grown more into his role, especially when the seven decoy Harrys emerge on screen in a stunning flying sequence over the modern London landscape.
Since the first half of “Deathly Hallows” primarily focuses on the trio’s journey, secondary characters like Neville, Ginny and Luna are only featured briefly, but they too have grown. On the Hogwarts Express, Neville stands up for himself. In a cell under the Malfoy’s mansion, Luna is a source of comfort to the imprisoned Ollivander. Ginny secures her spot in Harry’s heart. Malfoy, however, is perpetually a coward.
While the film loses much of the complex background the book provides, its focus on the central three characters lays the groundwork for the final showdown of the Potter series. An action-packed, though gloomy portrait of life under the rule of Voldemort, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I” is intense, emotional and, as always, magical.