In the best and worst sense, few recent blockbuster films have managed to convey the sense of the passage of many months of time better than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I.
It does this via two main strategies. Firstly, it crams in as much narrative as it can, keen to leave as much of J K Rowling’s source material in place, before it skids to its half-time break. And secondly, it goes on for a good 20 minutes after your buttocks have waved the white flag.
That said, there’s little arguing that it’s a film that shoots out the traps quite brilliantly. In fact, with one notable exception which we’ll come to shortly, all of the really good stuff is to be found in the first third of the movie. That’s where you get the cavalcade of British thesps (Alan Rickman, as always, takes the honours for us, but you get, inevitably, a lot more Ralph Fiennes too, and the return of Imelda Staunton is a brief delight), along with the sinister build up of the Dark Lord Voldemort’s plan, the magnificent sequences inside the Ministry Of Magic, and a real sense of darkness and gloom.
Let’s make no bones about this, then: the first segment of the film is utterly gripping. Director David Yates has not only learned how to get the most out of his hardly-miniscule special effects budget (most of which is very much used for effect rather than distraction), but he’s utterly on top of some quite brilliant blockbuster sequences. The same kind of sequences that big budget production after big budget production over the past year or two have failed to deliver.
The opening transportation of Harry Potter to attempted safety, for instance, is genuinely thrilling, the kind of sequence that will leave many in the audience simply gasping for breath. There’s surely, too, a future horror film in Yates, given just how well he manages to jolt you out of your seat, and put across such a sinister tone. He borrows a little from Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner Of Azkaban movie, yet he’s wise to do so, melding one or two of the ideas from there with plenty of his own. They promised this one would be dark and dangerous, and they really weren’t kidding. Make no mistake: that 12A rating is very well deserved.
Once he’s built up such a believable sense of foreboding, though, Yates then has to turn the movie over to the most familiar trio of teen movie characters on the planet. So we have wizarding chums Ron, Hermione and Harry put into place on the search for Horcruxes, with it also firmly established that Voldemort and the forces of darkness will stop at little to track them down.
As an opening act, it’s hard to think how it could have delivered more.
Yet it’s then that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I starts to lose its momentum, and it never really gets it back. Because once Ron, Hermione and Harry head off on their Horcrux hunt, the film takes the franchise away from the very elements that have always grounded it through the slower moments before. There’s no Hogwarts here, for instance, and many of the familiar side characters are shuffled away for a very large proportion of the film.
Instead, the story puts Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in the unenviable position of having to carry the vast bulk of the film, with very little narrative meat to feast on by this stage. And, to be frank, they cope with it to varying degrees.
It’s a little predictable now to come to the conclusion that it’s Watson who’s matured as the best acting talent of the three, but there’s proof of it all over Deathly Hallows Part I. Radcliffe’s improved a lot here, too, and he’s given some really quite difficult work to do. We can’t lose the feeling that he seems to be developing as an actor around a year behind where the Potter films generally need him to be, though, yet he’s closed the gap a lot here, and it’s to the benefit of the film.
Grint, however, is likeable enough, but Ron Weasley lurches between comedy sidekick and being in a bit of a bad mood. Grint copes with this perfectly well (and generates many of the film’s laughs), but there’s never any threat that the character is going to go be taken much deeper.
To be fair, it doesn’t help that the three simply aren’t given enough story to put across here. The narrative feels like an old-style computer adventure game, which hinges on discovering objects, solving puzzles, taking things to the right place to use them, and unlocking the next level. That in itself isn’t a massive problem, but the pacing is terrible at times, and the three main characters really don’t evolve very much at all throughout it all.
As such, the film drags substantially as it heads into its final third, and it’s there that it hits you. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part I is effectively a film about a journey for Ron, Harry and Hermione. But not in any sense a metaphorical one. Instead, it’s a simple, and long, traipse from A to B via C to get things done, and there’s little more to it than that for most of the film.
David Yates, to be fair, does occasionally attempt to inject more life into the second half of his film, and he does so with varying levels of success. Yet suddenly, out of the blue, he pulls a stunning animated sequence out of his bag of tricks, that left our jaw dangling near the floor. It’s unexpected, exquisitely executed, and by far the darkest thing in a film that already frequently snarls with menace. We’ll tell you no more about it for fear of spoiling it, but if you find yourself tempted to watch-gaze as the ending gradually draws near, it’s worth indulging the film just a little further.
Still, the ending itself proves little reward, with the much-talked-about decision to split the Deathly Hallows book into two films giving the script no particularly obvious end point. What’s more, nobody really bothers to try and generate one, with the brakes very suddenly applied and the credits rolling on a pretty non-descript moment.
But then that’s an indicator of the battle that Deathly Hallows Part I faces, and never really fully deals with. That it’s only telling half of a story, and robbed of the ability to have a beginning, middle and end to itself, it unnaturally elongates the mid-section. Thus it sorely misses, as a self-contained movie in its own right, any kind of convincing final act.
It does, to be fair, set the scene for a smashing finale. But if you’re looking for proof that the breaking of Deathly Hallows into two films was a narrative decision rather than a commercial one, it simply isn’t here.
Which leaves you with an occasionally strong blockbuster movie, that spends far too much time treading water, and relegates many of the main reasons for sticking with the franchise thus far into the background.
There are, to be fair, moments here that match anything the franchise has delivered to date. And there’s further evidence too that David Yates has got an extremely promising movie career ahead of him, post-Potter.
But while Deathly Hallows Part I just about holds together as 146 minutes of entertainment, and is going to please its target audience with its sheer reverence to J K Rowling’s book, it remains a frustrating beast. It’s certainly tinged with moments of excellence. Yet it ultimately so over-indulges itself, that when it finally ends, it leaves you exhaling with relief, rather than demanding more.
Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here.