“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” is the best film in the franchise since the fourth, “The Goblet of Fire.” That film was fashioned as a straight-ahead, old-fashioned thriller; this new one pushes things even further, into the realm of pure horror.
Ears are dismembered; wizened old ladies are transformed into man-eating pythons; and our young heroes race across an increasingly barren landscape, as the existential panic mounts all around them. The only thing missing from the exceedingly bleak massacre is a chainsaw.
Directed by David Yates, who made the previous two Potter pictures, “Deathly Hallows” is one of two movies based on the final volume in J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard series. (Part 2 will be released next July.) That puts a lot of pressure on screenwriter Steve Kloves, who has to incorporate a great deal of exposition and set-up, most of which won’t get paid off for another seven months.
Yet “Deathly Hallows” succeeds as a self-contained work, mainly because Yates and Kloves have done such an effective job creating and sustaining the grim mood. Even if you can’t follow all the beats in the story -- and unless you are utterly steeped in Potter-iana, some of the talk of “horcruxes” and “polyjuice potion” is inevitably going to sail over your head — you still find yourself pulled along by the film’s urgent, unnerving momentum.
The film begins, appropriately enough, in almost complete darkness — indeed, for much of the first 30 minutes, cinematographer Eduardo Serra turns down the light so low that you sometimes need to squint to make out what’s happening.
Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has now taken corporeal form, and is determined to capture Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) before he can be moved to a safe house. The Order of the Phoenix, the body charged with protecting him, develops what should be a foolproof plan to keep the young wizard safe -- but they are viciously attacked midflight. This excellent opening passage sets the stage for much of what follows, with long, quietly tense dialogue scenes giving way to bursts of bloody, gangster movie-style violence.
In quick succession, The Ministry of Magic collapses, and a new regime — determined to squash out “Mudbloods,” the half-human, half-wizards among them -- is established. The Order of the Phoenix is sent underground. Harry and his two closest friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are forced into hiding.
For all the story’s plot and far-ranging scale, though, the marvel of Deathly Hallows is that it maintains such careful focus on the three central characters, who must figure out how to destroy the remaining pieces of Voldemort’s soul that are scattered around the wizarding world.
Exile and ethnic cleansing don’t sound like especially comforting or even appropriate themes for a children’s movie -- until you start to realize that “Deathly Hallows” isn’t a children’s film at all. Yates has stripped away all last vestiges of kid’s stuff that adorned the earlier pictures
What he locates at the core of Rowling’s story is something much more poignant and powerful: The overwhelming fear of a trio of adolescents reckoning with an adult world turned upside down; and the heartbreaking sadness of one young man who keeps watching others being sacrificed on his behalf.
“Deathly Hallows” requires a little more patience than most of the previous Potter pictures, especially in the long middle section, which finds Harry, Ron and Hermione traveling around the English countryside, struggling with a locket that has the power to alter their personalities. The movie is also hamstrung by a climactic rescue from a character who literally emerges out of nowhere — a cheat that was in Rowling’s novel, and that lamely gets repeated here.
But Yates also manages to find new ways to surprise us, which isn’t so easy when we’re seven films into a big-budget franchise. Three-quarters of the way along, we learn the story of the Deathly Hallows — three brothers who once cheated Death — and for a few elastic, eye-popping moments, the film shifts into animation. (This sequence, supervised by Ben Hibon, might just be the single best thing in all seven films.)
In a series now crowded with dozens of well-known actors, Yates also makes room for a few of the supporting actors to shine. Helena Bonham Carter, especially, needs only two scenes to give her Bellatrix Lestrange an epically unhinged majesty, like Stevie Nicks crossed with Cruella De Ville.
The fourth film, for all its high-powered thrills, never lost sight of the fact that it was a story of teenagers hurtling too fast into adulthood. By the same token, what makes Deathly Hallows so affecting is that, beyond the elaborate special effects and mythological mumbo-jumbo, this is a film grounded in ordinary, painful emotion.
Watch out for a brief bit in which Harry grabs Hermione and forces her to dance, in a bid to take her mind off their worries. As the handheld camera zooms in to follow them, with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “O Children” playing on the soundtrack — an anarchronistic touch that nonetheless feels perfectly judged -- these two deeply anxious souls get to be kids, for just a few fleeting moments. Then the music stops. And the panic starts up all over again.