Various things have happened to the Harry Potter franchise since Christopher Columbus got the ball rolling in 2001, and the absence of that same director is one of the biggest. His two entries began the Potter films in dramatically underwhelming style. After his departure, when Alfonso Cuaron took over the reigns for The Prisoner of Azkaban, the already billion-dollar series (reflecting its trio of stars’ own development) began to grow up.
David Yates picked up the franchise at film five – The Order Of The Phoenix – and has, in the most part, done an admirable job. He is responsible for making film five comparable in quality to film three (after the lull of Goblet Of Fire) and should be credited for helping the series, and the cast, mature into what it is today. What a shame, then, that Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows (Part One) is his weakest entry in the series so far.
There are many things we should consider about this film. The first, and possibly most important, is that it is the introduction to the finale. Thus, it gets saddled with the most exposition-heavy segments of what is undoubtedly Rowling’s most exposition-heavy novel. This could be seen as necessary in order to unburden Part Two (an artistically lazy conclusion) or as an unfortunate result of the studio’s decision to split the thing in two. After all, Order Of The Phoenix (Yates’ first entry in the series) is the longest of the novels and is structurally superior to this. Watching Part One, the decision to split the films seems legitimised more by the inevitable box-office haul than for any artistic reason.
The fact that there is so much ‘stuff’ for Harry and his companions to do (and find) suits the screen far less than it suited Rowling’s novel. In print, the story could be held together through exposition and explanations that didn’t feel like what they were; here, on screen, the story flags under the weight of its own fragmented nature. Taking our three heroes out of the well-rehearsed structure of Hogwarts is not in itself the problem (the film’s more roaming nature actually gives rise to some pleasant, varied photography), but the result of splitting the film means slowing the mid-section down and lumbering the narrative with endless locations, names, MacGuffins and contrivances. One problem the film series has always faced is that the motives of the characters have been more difficult to cement: because so much is going on, the strands become tangled. Audiences who have only ever seen the films (especially with the gaps in-between) must surely struggle to nail everything down.
Radcliffe, Grint and Watson (as Harry, Ron and Hermione respectively) give their most assured performances yet. As usual, Watson appears the most comfortable, but Radcliffe and Grint have improved. This is essential to the film’s success, because as things have moved along they have been required to ‘act’ more and more often. Those who have criticised Radcliffe in the past need to remember that he has had the hardest work to do. Also crucial are the mostly successful comic beats in the film (including an amusing polyjuice potion transformation scene at the start) which provide lights in the darkness of Yates’ consistently moody picture, which is also the scariest and most violent Potter film so far. As with most of the Potter films, the supporting cast reads like an honours list of British thespians, and all play their roles well, even if most are only briefly onscreen, or sidelined as soon as they appear.
It looks great, has good performances and maintains a dark tone without feeling forced. There are strong set-pieces, but over all the film’s pacing hampers the experience. Exposition heavy, Potter 7: Part One is an entertaining but flawed prelude to the real finale, which hits July next year.