The wheels came right off the Harry Potter franchise last year with the horribly adolescent Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (or, as I prefer to call it, ‘Harry Potter: My Mate Fancies You’), a film obsessed with teenage crushes and clumsy fumbling, only finding a focus and some sense of drama with the dramatic death of Dumbledore in the last half-hour. Deathly Hallows Part One is an odd one, too, but in a much better way.
This is a film concerned with scene-setting, moving the characters into position ready for the final battle in the soon-come final half of the final book. Deathly Hallows, a couple of zingy set pieces aside, is short on action and big on proper character moments as Harry and his chums, mercifully freed from the confines and cloisters of Hogwarts, find themselves on the run and on the back foot, hiding out in the wilds and waiting for the inevitable.
Despite its exhausting running time, Deathly Hallows is a much more engrossing and absorbing film than any in the series since the monster-fest of Chamber of Secrets. There’s a real sense of impending doom, a feeling that Harry’s story is ending and that events and circumstances are spiralling out of control towards a catastrophic conclusion. Harry and co flee Hogwarts and regroup at Harry’s adopted family home – but even the Dursleys are heading for the hills. A breakneck broomstick flight across London – far more thrilling on screen than in JK Rowling’s flat, unexciting prose - sees even more fatalities from the regular cast as Voldemort’s Death Eaters swoop in for the kill. Harry, Hermione and Ron (the three young stars have never been better), after a refreshing adventure on the streets of London, disappear into the countryside and wonder what to do next. For a very long time. Friendships and loyalties are tested to breaking point as the trio try to find the Horcruxes, symbols and embodiments of Voldemort’s terrible power – whatever it is.
I often wonder if Rowling realised she was going to take her characters into such dark places when she gave them names like Weasley, Snape and Dumbledore; never more than in Deathly Hallows do the film’s juvenile roots sit uncomfortably with the undoubtedly bleaker narrative as it races towards the finish line. Some of the old niggles about the story remain; if Voldemort is so all-powerful, why is it taking him so long to wipe Harry off the face of the Earth? And if Harry’s such a powerful wizard, how come he still hasn’t beaten Voldemort? We could do with a bit more variety in the magic too. Harry and his friends spend all their time throwing firebolts around with their wands but surely it’s time for something different? Come on, H, would it kill you to do a few card tricks or pull the odd rabbit out a hat? You could even saw Hermione in half. Whizzy lightning’s all well and good but it’s not much fun at parties.
Deathly Hallows Part One is a definite marking time instalment but if, like me, you’ve been a bit ambivalent about the whole Potter phenomenon, especially after a run of underwhelming movies, it finally looks as if the series is gearing up to deliver a genuinely powerful and affecting finale. Plenty of deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes goodies on the 2-disc DVD set (and for once DVD purchasers aren’t elbowed aside in favour of the Blu-Ray crowd who tend to get the lion’s share of extra material these days) but no commentary for those with the time and inclination to listen to such things.