Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part I

By  · Published on November 18th, 2010

*** EDITOR’S NOTE: This review contains spoilers. Those of you who haven’t read the book or simply don’t want to know what happens in the film have been warned! ***

I won’t deny the massive amount of anticipation I harbored going into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I. I am an enormous fan of the books, and the subsequent films, but the final book was more far more meaningful to me than any of those that had preceded. Deathly Hallows was the book that most inspired me, most moved me, and ultimately validated my reading the entire series. It struck me as the lights went down in the theater that these were no longer just characters, these were people with whom we, the fans, were as familiar as some of the more ancillary members of our social circle. We have watched them grow up over the course of six, soon to be eight, films in an almost identical fashion as they grew in the text over seven books. No other fantasy film series can boast this. This more than any other Potter film had to deliver in order that the entire journey on which we’ve been led up to this point not seem a waste. I am happy to report that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I not only delivered, but may in fact be my favorite of the entire franchise thus far.

The tone of the film is expectedly bleak, but never cripplingly morose. The dark trials Harry must face, the mounting body count, and the steadily increasing weight upon his own two shoulders never feels overplayed because of the way it compliments the stakes. The reason the audience never feels encumbered by negativity is due in large part to the small, fleeting moments of levity that serve to remind the characters as well as the audience of the universally joyous facets of life for which these beleaguered heroes are fighting. When Harry and Hermione dance together in the tent doesn’t feel like a shoehorned love triangle device, but instead two friends desperately trying to latch on to the fragments of happiness scattered by Voldemort’s return to power. It is a beautiful, sincere moment that canonizes the film’s achievements in both performance and direction.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione (alias Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) have grown as actors just as much as they have grown into young adulthood. Harry is a little wiser, Hermione is more emotionally vulnerable, and Ron finds an unshakable drive and boldness unseen in the previous films. And yet none of these changes feel contrived, but rather seamlessly fostered by their harrowing experiences of the last two films. But these three young actors are due all the credit in the world as they once and for all shed the child actor label and establish themselves as artists worthy of standing aside any in their field regardless of age.

The cinematography of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I is phenomenal. When necessary, shots are framed to capture the lost innocence of our heroes, the horror of Voldemort’s growing influence, and the gravity of the choices they must make for the greater good. There is a shot at the beginning wherein Hermione is erasing from her parents’ minds the memory of their only child in an effort to protect them. It is heart wrenching and perfectly shot. This is also the first Harry Potter film I’ve seen to play with animation in order to tell a story within a story and it is gorgeous.

This is also the first Harry Potter movie, in my opinion, that effectively makes the audience feel a sense of loss with each death. I have to say one of my biggest criticisms with the last film is that I should have been more impacted by the death of Dumbledore than Half-Blood Prince allowed. Something about the coldness of the film or the ham-fisted way it was shot completely took me out of it. But when Dobby meets his demise near the end of this one, despite the amplification of that character’s annoyingness in the second film, it tugged at my heart in a way that wasn’t cheap or manipulative. The same could definitely be said, in fact moreso, for the demise of Hedwig and I love how they gave her more of a heroic sendoff than the book did; the last shred of Harry’s innocence struck down right at the beginning.

The first thing we tend to do as fans, when our beloved books are adapted to film is scrutinize every alteration, every embellishment, and every omission with bilious disgust. But deviations made by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I are impressively slight and ultimately falter only in levels of disclosure. There are topics central to the book that are suggested in passing or murmured in the background so as to preserve them for the fans, but in a way that would leave those unread in Potter utterly confused. Still, this is HP7’s biggest flaw and it is a meager criticism at that.

One of the biggest questions I had, that anyone will have, going in is where the screenwriter would decide to make the division between the two films. That moment has to be a cliffhanger that brings the events of the first chapter to head and serves as a fitting prelude to the climax. While I think it accomplishes these tasks, the actual point where they break leaves a great deal to the second film in a way that I fear will have us complaining of stark incongruity in pacing. Where the first half is a methodic, introspective voyage across landscapes of despair, the second is going to be, by virtue of the remaining events, a balls-out action film. But conjecture and assumption lead to unfair expectations so I will simply bide my time until July.

Upside: Possibly the best fantasy film since Return of the King

Downside: Some of the important aspects of the story are presented as subtle head nods that non-Potterphiles may not appreciate

On the Side: Guillermo del Toro had, at one time, expressed an interest to direct this film.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.