A lot has been asked of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. At different moments it has been time to fight, time to learn, time to play. Now, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010), it’s time to run. The three heroes are being pursued so ardently in this seventh picture that they hardly have a moment to rest. They will run through the streets of London, the underground Ministry of Magic, the crags and rocks of the English coast, and its unfriendly forests. They will be pursued by Death Eaters on foot, Death Eaters on broomsticks, terrifying thugs called Snatchers and by one large snake. Worse, when they get to catch their breath, they don’t know how to find what they’re after; magical objects called Horcruxes in which their pursuer, the dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has hidden pieces of his soul in the hope of gaining immortality. Worse still, their hopeless situation and their possession of one of the cursed objects which they do not know how to destroy, has threatened their friendship in a way never before thought possible. They bicker, succumb to jealously, and one, Ron (Rupert Grint), says he’s had enough and quits the team. Wasn’t it just a few short years ago that the biggest problem to bedevil Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) was the result of the day’s Quiddich match? Those days are gone.
Things have not improved for Harry and gang since we last saw them. Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is dead, killed by the slippery Snape (Alan Rickman), the longtime professor who seems to have snookered us all by being a double-agent for Voldemort. The Ministry of Magic is filled with sympathizers of the dark Lord including the odious Dolores Umbridge (Imalda Staunton), Harry’s old enemy from episode five. There’s hardly any time for Harry’s friends like Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) or Lupin (David Thewlis), or his love interest Ginny (Bonnie Wright) and worst of all, there’s no time at all for Hogwarts, his beloved school that has grown too dangerous for him now, as doggedly hunted he his by Voldemort and his minions. No, there will be no school this year as Harry, Ron and Hermione (Emma Watson) must hide out in the woods, coming up with a plan to hunt down those blasted Horcruxes.
This is a handsome Hollywood movie, well-mounted by David Yates, who finds and exploits the rare still moments to showcase his eye for interesting compositions of lovely images. A lot of it is ugly, however, full of dark corridors and inelegant landscapes, where wizard battles take place and evil plots are hatched. Many of the characters look a little worse for ware, not the least of which our three heroes, who can create a tent that looks tiny from the outside but houses multiple rooms inside, but one of them apparently isn’t a shower. Radcliffe and Grint have unkempt and dirty hair, cuts and bruises, and noticeable and unseemly facial hair. This malaise affects both sides of the war as the Malfoys (Jason Isaacs [Dad], Helen McCrory [Mom] and Tom Felton [Son]), once the prized family in Voldemort’s camp before a series of failures to properly kill Harry got them on the dark Lord’s bad side, seem more harried and unsure of themselves. The general dreariness has even sapped up Ron’s usual good humor, eventually causing his desertion. Though the gloom can’t help but at least partially affect us out in the audience (this is perhaps the least fun Potter) it doesn’t fully submarine the exorcise. This is the necessary weary, the dark before the dawn. And it’s not all bad, Watson, pretty as ever, seems to have missed the worst of it.
Just because it’s bleak doesn’t mean it’s lifeless. Yates is able to mine the moments of the lost three scrambling for direction for real connection to their plight, something that had been previously missing in his two previous turns as the captain of H.M.S Harry. His action scenes are always excellent technical displays (here we have an escape from the ministry, a broomstick chase, a battle with a cloudy specter, and an sensational skirmish with a serpent) but previously they had been slightly bereft of meaning. Less so here. Still, the break-neck speed in which all the things that have to happen robs Yates of flexing his real muscles but he is able to sneak in some good bits. I’m thinking of a cross country trek in which the morale of the three heroes rapidly depreciate and of a fantastic animated telling of an important fairy tale that perhaps isn’t as much legend as history. There is also a moment shared by Radcliffe and Watson that is tender and lovely. At their lowest point, they are able to take some comfort in music, which Dumbledore says is a magic far beyond anything done at Hogwarts (though, not in the films, I don’t think). It’s a brief reminder that these are kids, only seventeen or eighteen, and they’ve already seen some of their friends die and will see a great deal more of them do the same, but for now they get to rally around that great comforter of the teenager; the radio. I believe this scene is the invention of Steve Kloves, the screenwriter, and that it doesn’t come from the books. It’s a much needed piece of leavening in what can often be a bitter piece of bread.