Having re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before seeing the first half of the story in David Yates' latest, I entered the cineplex ready to dub the latest adaptation of the most popular book franchise in the world Harry Potter and the Interminable Holocaust Allegory. This would not be entirely Yates' fault, mind you; there are fundamental flaws in the story that cannot be blamed on anyone involved with the production. The problems inherent in the film version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are the issues inherent in J.K. Rowling's final entry (one hopes) in her wildly successful series. When I devoured the closing chapter of Harry Potter's saga as an 18-year-old leaving high school just as the most visible pop culture symbol of my childhood came to a close, I loved every page. Absorbed by the action, I plowed through 759 pages in mere hours, sad to see these characters slipping away even as I propelled myself toward the end with breakneck speed.
What I saw upon a second reading, however, was the weakest book of the series since it moved into darker territory in the third entry. Pacing problems mired the first half in directionless muck, wallowing in dystopic Holocaust/post-9/11 allegory until exposition suddenly kicked in and never let up until the end (even the epilogue, which I found deeply unsatisfactory even on the first read, summarizes the futures of the characters with banal resolution). Yates' biggest contribution to the three Potter films he's helmed has been his commitment to retaining as much as possible of the novels while still releasing films at acceptable blockbuster length. Even The Order of the Phoenix, the longest and most meandering of the books, was whittled down to one of the shortest running times of any of the franchise movies without sacrificing the core of the work.
Ergo, his decision to split Deathly Hallows into two parts speaks less to the overflow of great ideas in Rowling's epic than a misguided attempt to use the final entry to give fans what fans always want: the entire book transposed to screen. Of course, fans don't know what they want, and it's interesting that the only fully successful adaptation of Rowling's books, Prisoner of Azkaban, owes its power to sacrificing the familiar plot elements to reach for a more magical and unpredictable atmosphere. There's nothing of the sort to be found in Yates' films, which suck the feeling of wonder from Hogwarts -- this was particularly evident in The Half-Blood Prince, which intriguingly dug beneath the oppressive and despairing tone of Rowling's best novel to find the feeling of appreciation and nostalgia for that which will soon be lost in the coming war, only to bungle this fascinating insight with a drab visual style.
I say all of this negative stuff to come to a surprising conclusion: David Yates got it right this time. More than that, he corrected what has been horribly wrong with the film franchise. If the director's defining trademark on the series so far was to ably cut down on excess while getting the story across unscathed, he proves by giving himself the space to breathe that, while he is still not cut out for the magical side of Harry Potter, he is abundantly capable of doing the one thing that no previous Potter film has managed: delve into the characters.
Whether shackled to the plot or simply under the impression that everyone had already read the books and thus did not need introduction nor updates on the characters, Harry, Ron and Hermione have often felt like spectators in their own saga, ushered from setpiece to setpiece before being made to deliver some line about the necessity of getting some Macguffin, the red herring that is Severus Snape and/or the importance of friendship, usually in the most breathless manner possible (Emma Watson in particular has always spoken her lines as if a mule kicked her in the stomach before the director yelled "Action!"). Here, however, Yates uses his spare running time to focus on the characters, and if Deathly Hallows Part 1 is about anything, it's about how these three young adults react to the horrifying situation in which they find themselves, a predicament so dire that even these battle-tested youths feel hopeless and directionless when confronted with it.
Undoubtedly aiding Yates and his aversion to the more mystical side of the mythos is the fact that Deathly Hallows is by some measure Rowling's most straightforward book, even if it is a tangled web of exposition. More indebted to Lord of the Rings than anything, the final book relies on an epic sweep of action to make up for a confounding and unsatisfying explanation for the final battle and heavy exposition throughout. Its emphasis on Holocaust imagery allows Yates to finally apply his more standard visuals to great usage, managing to turn a color palette that consists primarily of grays and grayer grays into something expressive.
So how does Harry Potter and the List of Schindler turn out? From the opening moments, as the sound of rusting and shrieking metal builds over a black screen before violently cutting out as the screen flashes an extreme close-up (the young woman in front of me actually dropped her popcorn tub in shock at this moment), Yates does a spectacular job of creating a sense of extreme discomfort, using Alexandre Desplat's dissonant score to keep you on edge even when the characters are sitting in a home. Nowhere is safe, no one can be trusted and it's only a matter of time before Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) uses his new control over the Ministry of Magic to track down his prey.
What, then, is a chosen one to do? After unloading a heaping pile of angst onto the audience with the film installment and indulging in puppy-dog teen romance with the sixth, Harry Potter and the Seven Beauties throws young adults into the real world, and the idea that Rowling plundered imagery from the most catastrophic event of modern times is a shrewd statement on how jarring true adulthood can be for increasingly sheltered youth. There are a few light chuckles to be found here as Rupert Grint continues his adorable "aw shucks" goofiness as Ron, but the dominant mood here is one of horror. Every time the kids manage to teleport themselves away from a fight, someone else finds them, and it's a wonder any of their hearts ever stop racing enough for them to sleep. After being decently entertained by the fourth film, bored by the fifth and frustrated by the misplaced emotional focus of the sixth, I was suddenly riveted. I even wanted to cover my eyes at times, so shaken by the world collapsing around these characters.
Mind you, there are a number of stumbling blocks in the film. For all the skill with which Yates handles the downtime, Harry Potter and the Boy in the Striped Pajamas still drags on far too long. A good 20 minutes could and should have been excised from the film for better flow. The gag of Harry's friends using Polyjuice Potion to disguise themselves as him to become decoys leads to some painfully unfunny humor too quickly out of the gate. Moreover, the dialogue in and around this scene is shamelessly expository, recalling not only moments from previous films but bits that were cut from the books for time. Another holdover from the book, Ron's petulant attitude toward the other two, is tired by this point: Rowling had so exhausted Ron's jealousy of Harry by the seventh book that she had to use the MacGuffin of the Horcrux, one of the seven enchanted objects that holds a piece of Voldemort's tattered soul, to bring out that tension again. At least Grint sells it well, and as much as this sort of thing brings back the angst that Rowling and the filmmakers separately beat to death with the fifth installment.
Actually, let's talk about that acting. I've always felt bad for the child actors in this series, forced to grow up and look talented when blanketed by, you know, every major story in modern British film. Still, they've never excelled, and Radcliffe in particular has never proven himself a star. Whether the result of maturation or the desire to go out with a bang, the three principal actors have dug deep and found a well of talent from which they'd not previously drawn. When Grint goes into his jealous fit, his eyes terrified me; I honestly thought he might lunge for not just Harry but Hermione as well. Watson tones down the histrionics and drops the endearingly nerdy side to tap into Hermione's insecurities at being the child of two Muggle parents, a fear exacerbated in the pureblood frenzy engendered by Voldemort (whose own blood is "tainted" with Muggle non-magic just as rumors abound to this day that Jews nested in Hitler's family tree). As for Radcliffe, he's come a long way from the boy who agonizingly ruined the terrifying revelation of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's return in The Goblet of Fire.
Yet these deepened insights come not from me-time showboating but group interplay. The way the three characters play off each other brings out these new traits, and for the first time all are developed in equal measure. Yates inserts a scene that was not in the book, placed after Ron, corrupted by the Horcrux, leaves his friends to try and find his family. As a devastated Hermione hugs a radio, Nick Cave's "O Children" comes on, and Harry, aware that they might both die at any second, extends a hand to his second-oldest friend and the two share a cathartic slow dance. This sequence is so ingenious, so well-executed and so planned-ahead for a later vision of Harry and Hermione kissing that torments the addled Ron that Rowling should call up Yates and writer Steve Kloves and thank them for improving her work.
When the action picks up, its more straightforward style allows Yates to focus less on the awe of a magical duel than the sheer terror of being hunted. After that failed lighthearted scene with the Harry duplicates, the Death Eater ambush that awaits the gang as they move to a safehouse is fantastically executed, harrowing and bewildering in the sudden assault. Harry Potter and the Day the Clown Cried even throws in a noble death that has already inspired various "Never Forget" messages and is a surprisingly tear-jerking moment considering the character in question hasn't shown up in the film series since The Chamber of Secrets. Even when Yates gets a bit too frenetic with a forest chase sequence, the action here is exhilarating and the kind of stuff that makes you grab your seat arm tighter. I also adored a brief animated sequence used to provide background on the titular deathly hallows, a bit of Gothic shadow puppetry that is as dark as anything in the film proper. Ben Hibon, who designed and directed this segment, went all out to make a haunting piece that resembles a sort of Slavic woodcarving of an old fairy tale, the kind that made even the happy endings fatalistic.
Naturally, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I feels incomplete, the setup to a finale that won't come until May of next year. But if having to wait six months is the price to pay for a Harry Potter film that finally passes muster, it's worth it. Previous films have used that who's-who supporting cast as a crutch, cutting to one of Alan Rickman's deliciously drawled one-liners or Maggie Smith's pert, slightly condescending humanism. Here, there's no one to distract from the principal cast, who are working without a net. They succeed beyond my wildest expectations, and after debating whether to see this at all or just wait until I unethusiastically double-bill the two parts of the film in May to break myself of the mediocre imagining of a key part of my childhood, I am thrilled that everyone involved finally got it right. The previous top dog of the films, The Prisoner of Azkaban, had the magic but not the story. This film, which lacks the magic by design, balances the visual impact with solid, if imperfect, storytelling, and it's all buoyed by terrific acting. Who could have guessed that the film to break Hollywood of its string of mediocre, audience-insulting blockbusters this year would be the latest entry in one of the most mediocre and audience-insulting blockbuster franchises of recent years?