The ultimate battle between light and darkness draws near. Voldermort and his followers hatch a plot to assassinate Harry Potter, who finds himself not only on the run, but with a long shopping list of magical objects to track down.
Rain lashes down. Bill Nighy intones, “These are dark times, there is no denying.” Good people look anxious and pale. Bad people look smug and even paler. Yes, the penultimate Potter quickly leaves us in no doubt that this is The Darkest One Yet, the film in which the phalanxes of evil rally and all looks lost. Even Hogwarts has been overrun, meaning Harry, Hermione and Ron must take to the road as fugitives. For the first time, the cosy trimmings of a Harry Potter film — train to school, lessons, quidditch match, Christmas — have all been Avada-Kedavra’ed into oblivion.
Yet what should feel fresh and urgent, a cross-country chase flick, is bogged down for long stretches by a curse of Excrucius Overplottio. There’s a main quest (find and destroy several ‘horcruxes’, objects containing fragments of Voldemort’s soul). Then there’s a sub-quest (find and combine three ‘deathly hallows’, objects that give their owner power over death). The Resurrection Stone, the Elder Wand, Godric Gryffindor's Sword, Salazar Slytherin’s Locket… at times it seems like the characters are outnumbered by the MacGuffins. J. K. Rowling had the luxury of hundreds of pages to explain it all; delivered as movie exposition, it makes you yearn for the chuck-a-ring-in-a-volcano simplicity of The Lord Of The Rings.
There’s a further unflattering parallel to be drawn with Peter Jackson’s films. Much of The Deathly Hallows: Part 1’s swampy middle stretch involves friends wandering through forests, emotionally manipulated by the jewellery they’re carrying (here, said locket) and starting to fall apart. The lead actors do things they’ve never done before — Radcliffe and Watson share a topless clinch (no wand-flashing, thankfully), while Grint has to play jealousy and paranoia — but there’s no real sense of weight to the breaking of this fellowship. And an invented-for-the-movie scene in which Harry and Hermione enjoy a dance inside their tent (which, being regular size on the outside, cavernous on the inside, may be on loan from Emilio Estevez’s character in Loaded Weapon) is both baffling and cringey.
Much better are the set-pieces. An early broomstick battle takes place in a raging thunderstorm, as Harry and several faux-Harrys (transformed by Polyjuice Potion, which, according to Brendan Gleeson’s Mad-Eye Moody, “tastes like goblin’s piss”) get ambushed by dive-bombing Death-Eaters. There’s a Mission: Impossible-style infiltration of the Ministry of Magic, now a fascist hub churning out propaganda leaflets with titles like ‘When Muggles Attack’. A fracas near the end even has bonus Jason Isaacs, always a good thing, as Lucius Malfoy gets his sinisterly-manicured hands on the Boy Who Lived. Though they’re small fry compared to what’s still to come — an audacious heist of Gringott’s bank and Voldemort’s all-out assault on Hogwart’s — these action sequences are orchestrated by director David Yates with brio and inventive effects. Crucially, this being a film formed out of half a book, they distract from the fact that there’s no real climax.
The acting is fine throughout, though again it’s a case of blink-and-you’ll-miss-a-RADA-alumnus — folk like John Hurt and Alan Rickman often spend most of their five minutes on-screen in the background of shots. Hopefully that, along with our other gripes, will be addressed in July, when the final film drops, and good and evil face off at a Scottish secondary school.
The first and third acts are over-busy; the middle one moves like an arthritic house-elf. Still, a decent smattering of magic moments and tensions pumped up sky-high. Bring on Part 2.