Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from the first part of an epic-length final installment that's been carved into two halves. The extra running time provided for the book's endlessly sinuous plot allows for a leisurely pace, with fewer memorable scenes from Rowling's original story being jettisoned for time than in previous Harry Potter films. The dread events in store for Harry and his friends cast a dark pall over the proceedings. And, perhaps most predictably of all, this penultimate tale twists here and there but, in the end, goes nowhere and resolves nothing.
More a String of Vignettes than a Movie
Harry Potter 7A is a gorgeous movie, beautifully realized and impressively acted. The performances by all concerned, from the three now-mature leads to a sprawling supporting cast each of whom is rationed approximately one line each, are committed and engaging. Emma Watson, as usual, stands out, though her line in distressed admonishment has over time become her default; Daniel Radcliffe, long the weakest link among the all-star casts of this British institution, gamely holds his own and has a few powerful scenes; and Rupert Grint has a firm grip on the stalwart sidekick who doesn't quite believe himself an equal partner in the trio's fate.
The special effects are masterful. Especially in a film that takes place partly in the Muggle world there must be no bright line between what's normal and what's magical, and the Harry Potter effects team has effectively made the magical seem organic to the natural world. The CGI backgrounds are as effective as good location shooting.
But there's something about David Yates's films that makes me itch. There's no question that he's talented. But fundamentally Yates seems oriented toward constructing each episode of the storyline in isolation. He carefully maps out each scene to deliver a discrete chunk of the storyline, and then end, its business done. Each event in one of Yates's Harry Potter films is hermetically sealed, with an internal payoff, but no consequence. The upshot is that nothing in this film builds toward anything. Something happens, it rises toward a resolution, then it seals itself and drops back into the box.
I first realized what was bothering me about Yates's style deep into his first Harry Potter effort, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The crisis involved Harry being confronted by Voldemort in the Ministry of Magic, and Harry seems unable to defend himself. At the crucial moment, Dumbledore appears, and in the ensuing duel defeats Voldemort for now. Dumbledore's appearance should have been a thrilling moment, accomplished through a audience-grabbing reveal.
Instead, Yates turned away from Harry's plight, pointed his camera at the Ministry fireplace portal, and caused Dumbledore to just walk into the scene. The subsequent battle was a special effects triumph, but the inept handling of Dumbledore's entrance made the whole thing sit there, wasting the efforts of Ralph Fiennes, Daniel Radcliffe, Michael Gambon, and a raft of talented CGI animators. Yates saw the scene entirely functionally: he had to add Dumbledore to the fight, so he added him to the fight.
This whole movie is like that. Each scene does exactly what it's supposed to do, beautifully, but with absolutely no forward momentum. The deaths, in particular, seem instantly forgotten. The cumulative effect is a sense that Harry and company go here, then they go there, then they go to some other place, and then the movie sort of stops.
Even The Two Towers, which had to resolve as little as possible so that the third movie in the series could be the blockbuster climax, nevertheless upped the ante to an almost absurd degree in each of its storylines, powerfully increasing the stakes for the final go.
The Final Payoff
To be sure, some of the blame for the wandering plot lies with the author, J.K. Rowling, who constructed a huge final installment with a big, dead camping trip weighing down the first half. The good news is that Yates accomplishes the function of these camping scenes, which is to establish the character conflicts of the three young refugees. And there are some great moments in this film: quiet ones, like an early scene where Ron admonishes Harry for thinking people are dying for him, and a few dramatic defining moment speeches (one of which is given, quite effectively, to Dobby the house elf). I just wish that Yates had looked up more often from crafting the individual vignettes in his story to gaze at the larger edifice he was building out of them.
Part 2 has all the most powerful character material, especially for Alan Rickman's Snape and for Radcliffe's Potter (not to mention several others who have their own big moments in the book). Yates and his screenwriter, Steve Kloves, understand these characters well, and I'm very much looking forward to Rickman's big scenes and to Harry's moment in the woods with Voldemort (a piece of which has already appeared in teaser trailers) and the scenes leading up to it. These are the turning points in which Harry (and Daniel) finally becomes a man, and I have faith in the Potter team's ability to deliver them.
As for this film: It works, and there's a lot of strong material in it. It's like a steamer trunk full of all kinds of really great stuff, and everything in that trunk will be something that Harry Potter fans will enjoy.