*Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
In a sense, it's patently unfair, attempting to evaluate Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 on its own terms. It's complicated enough that the film is so deeply informed by the six that have preceded it in the series. But how could this one possibly feel satisfying when it's destined to leave you hanging in the middle of the story?
That is, however, the path that the producers opted to take for the climactic story line — and it's not as though cinema history dictates inevitable success or failure for films that end with an explicit or implicit "to be continued." The Empire Strikes Back is widely considered the best of the Star Wars series despite its multi-cliffhanger conclusion; ditto with The Lord of the Rings' middle segment, The Two Towers. And on the other hand, you've got shot-in-succession sequels like The Matrix Reloaded and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest that teased without offering enough satisfactions of their own.
This Potter falls somewhere between the two — ambitious and momentous in its way, yet never quite as powerful as it wants to be.
Times are already dark as this chapter of the saga begins. The Ministry of Magic has finally acknowledged the return of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and is desperately trying to defend the magical world. Meanwhile, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is attempting to remain hidden from Voldemort's Death Eaters, but it seems impossible to stay a step ahead of them. Eventually he goes on the run with only Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), determined to find and destroy the mysterious remaining Horcruxes, each of which houses a shard of Voldemort's soul.
J.K. Rowling's series had turned into a remarkable allegory for militant racism by its final installment, and director David Yates — returning from the previous two films — effectively captures a magical world that has become something akin to Vichy France. Terrific sequences in the Ministry of Magic peek in on the mass creation of anti-"muggle" propaganda, and kangaroo courts to find those of unpure blood. It's a lot of thematic weight to carry, but Deathly Hallows does so deftly.
Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves also get to spend a lot of time simply exploring the interaction between our three primary protagonists — and it's here that we get into tricky territory. There's no way a single Deathly Hallows film would have had time to allow the character moments to breathe, so it's impressive that we wind up with huge chunks of screen time devoted to Harry, Ron and Hermione struggling with their solitude and their roles in this epic struggle. But while there's an undeniable chemistry between these three young actors after a decade playing these characters together, it's also true that these are ... well, three young actors.
Previous films have buffered their relative inexperience with the significant roles played by terrific supporting characters. Here, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have to carry plenty of emotional scenes — and as likeable as they all are, they don't always have the gravitas required of the material.
The longer expository sections draw attention to the relative scarcity of action beats, and to Yates' struggles with the big set pieces. The battle sequences in Deathly Hallows move at a speed that often makes it impossible to figure out what's going on. While the action scenes in Yates' Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince were far from perfect, it never seemed like this much work to make it through the frantic editing.
Yet, for all its bumps and unevenness, this film series still has grown remarkably potent with age, evolving from Chris Columbus' earnest, overly faithful amusement park rides in the first two installments into our hero's challenging journey to manhood. We visit again with favorite characters like Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) and Dobby the house elf (Toby Jones), and see the heroes we first knew as children learning what it means to survive on their own.
It's hard to imagine that, when the screen goes black at our cliffhanger moment, viewers will be left thinking they've seen their favorite film in the series. The effectiveness of Part 1 becomes a function almost entirely of what has come before — and what we know is still to come.