The curse of the Harry Potter film franchise has always been the tension between its collective filmmakers’ desires to tell a well-crafted story and to serve the fans by including as many moments from the bestselling books as possible. After a pair of dawdling films aimed at young children, the series entered an awkward adolescence in which each successive film managed to offer a few gripping scenes often devoid of context in increasingly choppy narrative waters. Each entry felt not like a continuation of the previous chapters but a summation of the corresponding book, offering a re-enacted best-of for fans and little else for viewers who enjoyed the stories but were not versed in the tangents of J.K. Rowling’s world. It’s a shame; chalk it up to screenwriter Steve Kloves, who penned all the adaptations except 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, not wanting to cut down a few trees for fear it would mar the forest. Happily, the question of whether the final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, would fall victim to the same treatment is mostly sidestepped by making two films from the book, released eight months apart. The latest film is the best yet: the most technically and stylistically accomplished, the most beautifully filmed, and the most emotionally interesting installment since the journey began almost a decade ago. Director David Yates (who helmed Order of the Phoenix, 2009’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and both halves of the finale) does wonderful work shifting between action and introspection, creating a briskly paced and entertaining chase movie that feels somewhat shorter than its two and a half hours and ends on a perfect cliffhanger. Yet the curse isn’t entirely lifted: the parts of the film that don’t work are precisely those that still feel beholden to a literary narrative whose detail no film could ever hope to re-create, and it’s a little sad that even with double the running time, Yates’ film still feels a bit too full. Part of this is the inherently jammed nature of the source material: in the final novel, Rowling has her characters questing for multiple series of magical objects while also fleeing for their lives and undergoing standard teenage relationship crises, so it’s a wonder Yates and Kloves were able to streamline the story as much as they did. Still, the film finds its emotional footing sooner than any of the others and remains captivating almost every moment. It’s the first time the series has risen above the level of re-creation and felt like a genuine story for film, and though it’s a shame it took us this long to get here, at least we get to go out on top.
Going out on top, interestingly, means ignoring huge swaths of what’s come before. The series has always tried to balance the larger and necessarily darker narrative — Harry’s pursuit of Lord Voldemort, the evil wizard who murdered his parents — with lighter and more interchangeable stories about teen drama as filtered through a YA expression of angst. These little vignettes, sandwiched as they’ve been in the larger stories, aren’t exactly a waste, but neither are they really missed. It’s more like they can be extracted without losing anything relevant to the real story; I’m thinking largely of the circuitous quasi-love story involving Harry and a student named Cho Chang a couple of installments back that was diverting enough when it happened but bore no weight on anything that came after, particularly given Harry’s much more organic and enjoyable relationship with Ron’s sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Yates’ film is stripped to the bone, revolving around Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) as they find themselves totally alone in a world determined to destroy them. Every scrap of the story, for perhaps the first time in franchise history, feels significant and necessary, and the final product is thoroughly engrossing.
For this final outing, Harry and his friends are charged with finding a series of horcruxes, magical talismans that each contain a fragment of the soul of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). It’s only by destroying these that they can hope to kill the villain in the showdown they all know is coming, so after a few expository scenes that highlight just how dangerous things are — Voldemort’s henchmen are out in force looking for Harry and willing to slaughter anyone with him — the kids are off on a non-stop journey to track down the objects by hopping from clue to clue and doing their best to stay one step ahead of the people chasing them. Huge chunks of time are devoted to their being alone, moving from campsite to campsite in the hopes of escaping trouble long enough to figure out where to go next, and these scenes are the best the franchise has yet offered in terms of emotional honesty. It only makes sense that in their final trial, the three young people at the center of the story begin to doubt the friendship that’s been the one constant throughout their time together, and Yates does a nice job choreographing the scenes to subtly emphasize this: when Harry and Ron begin to bicker over the direction they should head, he stops showing the trio together in the frame, always resorting to two against one. The visual chemistry works to underscore just how good it feels when they eventually mend their friendship: we don’t realize how nice it is to see them united until they’ve been kept apart.
Aside from a covert break-in to the Ministry of Magic that starts to drag after a few minutes, the film’s relentless chase scenes are perfectly sculpted, and each grows more organically into the next than in any other installment. Yet I don’t want to damn the film faintly by merely saying it’s better than its predecessors; it is, ultimately, a smartly executed story that mixes the right amount of action with some hard-earned self-discovery, and it offers moments of characterization that are just wonderful. There’s a scene in which Harry and Hermione are sitting in their enormous tent, totally dejected: they don’t know how to find the remaining horcruxes or destroy them when they do, and Ron has taken off after brawling with Harry. Hermione is listening to Ron’s abandoned radio and hoping to draw some comfort when Harry approaches her slowly and draws her to her feet to dance. It has all the warning signs of every bad teen drama you’ve ever seen, and you start to wonder if Harry and Hermione will hook up (or do whatever passes for it in Rowling’s slightly sanitized version of teenage life) just to ignore the pain of their absent loves, when Harry begins to dance in the most ungainly and laughable manner possible. For a split-second the humor feels unintentional and awkward, but it rapidly becomes clear that he’s not trying to seduce her but just to lighten the mood, and they dance around happily like the kids they’ve almost forgotten they are. It’s a nicely done moment, acted well by Radcliffe and Watson as they riff on the chemistry they’ve been building for years.
And this is, ultimately, Radcliffe’s show, along with Watson and Grint. They’ve always been the focus of the films but have never had to carry one quite like this, and they’ve grown into the roles just in time. There are still instances when they’re called to inhabit the wooden traits that initially defined them — Harry’s thick-headed earnestness, Hermione’s pouty domineering, Ron’s well-meaning myopia — but for the most part they’re allowed to relax and feel real; rather than acting melodramatically, they’re allowed to explore real drama. They’re aided overall by a strong supporting cast — just about every actor born in the U.K. after World War II has popped up in the series —that’s totally stolen by Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, the former Hogwarts instructor who’s shifted allegiances to Voldemort.
The escalating adventures lead to plenty of battles and set up the confrontation to come in the next and final film — and this one stops on such an ideally timed cliffhanger that you’ll wish it hadn’t ended — as Harry and his friends start to track down the horcruxes and learn about the Deathly Hallows, a series of magical objects that render the user basically invincible. It sounds like a lot to keep tabs on, and frankly it is, but Yates keeps the pace solid and engaging the entire time. The action scenes are tightly edited by Mark Day, and cinematographer Eduardo Serra gorgeously captures the countryside the children find themselves inhabiting. Similarly, Alexandre Desplat’s score adds the right amount of tension and excitement, but Yates knows when to dial it down or when to turn it off completely.
Throughout the film, there runs an undercurrent of the kind of excited relief that comes at reaching the end of a long story that gets better as it unfolds. The franchise’s earlier and more aimless days are happily forgotten in the wake of the arrival of the real tale, and it’s a wonder to think that a film that so sharply observes what it feels like to grow up sprang from the universe that once felt like nothing more than a cluttered collection of bad puns and groan-inducing symbolism. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is a rousing, exciting, and engaging film that flies with the better angels that have often felt just out of reach for the other installments: its humor spot-on, its conflicts utterly real, its sacrifices painfully felt. Early on, when the three main characters begin their journey, they make a stop at an old safe house only to find it deserted. “We’re alone,” Hermione says, and the camera’s gentle pull back through the silent room is meant to underscore that she, Ron, and Harry will have to run the final leg of this race without help. She’s wrong, though: they have each other, and they have us.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.