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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Rated PG-13, 146 min. Directed by David Yates. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Julie Walters, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Tom Felton, Rhys Ifans, Jason Isaacs, Helen McCrory, Peter Mullan.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 19, 2010

"These are dark times," the Minister for Magic (Nighy) announces right off the bat, and this film plays positively like a limbo game of how low can you go into the dark, darker, darkest. Now imagine bleaker, more benighted still – witness executions, ambushes, and snakes galore – and you're somewhere in the neighborhood of Deathly Hallows' suitably end-times feel. The first half of a two-film adaptation of J.K. Rowling's final book about the battle between the damaged boy-wizard Harry (Radcliffe) and the monstrous dark lord Voldemort (Fiennes), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is, as a whole, the finest Potter film yet. To any agnostic who squirmed through the early, lightly cartoonish pictures, that may sound like qualified praise. Let's try it again: I came to the first six films of the Harry Potter cycle as both a fan and a film critic – two discrete personages with sometimes competing interests and expectations. This is the first film in the series in which I didn't have to distinguish between the two, or make apologies for one to the other. Top to bottom, it's a thrilling piece of cinema, from the superlative digital effects and original score from Alexandre Desplat – the best movie-music maestro working today – to the saga-scoped camerawork of cinematographer Eduardo Serra and Steve Kloves' deft distillation of one-half of 784 pages. Gone are the sweet hijinks at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, as well as any "hey, look at me!" magical inventions; Deathly Hallows is all business – taut, fraught, and fearsome. When Voldemort's minions, the Death Eaters, storm the Ministry and install themselves as fascistic rulers, Harry and best friends Hermione (Watson) and Ron (Grint) go underground. This is a quest movie, with a lot of ground covered, and just as our heroes never stay long in one place or feel safe in their surroundings, neither does the audience. (Yates, who helmed the last two films and will see it through to its Part 2 finish in July, establishes in frame one a feeling of barely-checked panic and sustains it throughout.) That quest sends the three friends trudging through a winter-ravaged British landscape to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes, talismans in which Voldemort safeguarded splinters of his soul. There's an additional mystery – that of the title's Deathly Hallows – and it turns out to be a very grim fairy tale indeed (seriously: the Grim Reaper top-bills), which is illuminated here in an animated sequence designed and directed by Ben Hibon. It's a stunning shadow play that recalls the spindly gorgeousness of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and the level of artistry in this three-minute set-piece surpasses anything yet seen in the Potter films. But there are simpler, less technically razzle-dazzle moments to savor, too. Kloves, who has written all but one of the series' screenplays (and frankly bobbled in the last one, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), goes off book to write an original, incandescent scene between Harry and Hermione that wordlessly elides a raw mix of emotions, and he gives Ron, now plainly in love with Hermione, a monumental monologue that is at once tender and winning and ripe for later ribbing. (Too bad Harry has no romantic equivalent; while all the other child actors aged quite brilliantly into nimble emoters, Bonnie Wright, as Harry's intended, Ginny Weasley, is, as ever, a wet blanket.) Deathly Hallows has been stripped of the series' tendency to mug hamlike for laughs; what remains is genuinely funny stuff that is still truthful to the spirit of these decent, sometimes goofy kid-characters, whom we've watched grow up in the course of 10 years. They remain fundamentally the same, only now with jaws set hard from troubled times behind and before them. They've been through something epic, and for the first time, truly, so have we.
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