Director: David Yates
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
And so we come to the beginning of the end, and there’s good news, bad news and some slightly disappointing news. The good news is that the producers have abandoned their plans to do a last minute retrofit of this second to last Harry Potter adventure into 3D. The bad news is that we still have to wait until July for the conclusion of the conclusion.
The slightly disappointing news is that is probably the weakest entry in the series for quite some time, and certainly a major step backwards from the stunning sixth part, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. That’s partly because it’s only half a film, so hopefully it will be a game of two halves, with a lot more to enjoy after the interval, but it's also partly because it's often more than a little dull.
Since we’re getting to the end of the adventure, it’s probably worth recapping how we got to this point for those not in the know. As a baby, Harry Potter was orphaned by the dark lord Voldemort and sent at the age of eleven to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he’s spent the last six years learning magic and about his destiny as the chosen one.
Along the way he’s made some friends and some enemies, and the formula up until now has been fairly uniform – a new school year at Hogwarts, with lessons and spells to be learned, and dangers to faced, alongside all the normal perils of being a teenager. But Harry and his friends have bigger things to be concerned with now, like the fate of the world for example. Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his minions, the Death Eaters, have been spreading terror and violence throughout the wizarding world, and even into the human one.
They’ve also infiltrated the Ministry of Magic, and traitors abound. Harry is under the protection of the Order of the Phoenix, but isn’t safe, and Voldemort’s plan is a simple one – kill Harry Potter, the one thing standing in the way of him being all powerful.
So Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) head out alone into the wider world to search for the remaining Horcruxes, devices that contain pieces of Voldemort’s soul. They already have one Horcrux that they can’t destroy, and no idea whatsoever where the others are or even what they look like.
This forlorn journey takes up most of the running time here, and allows for a sense that they're finally putting their years of training at the school to use, that it’s all been building to this. But it’s a film cast in doom and gloom from its very opening that sees that the Warner Bros logo turn to rust.
It’s a dark and dangerous world that aches with melancholy, with internal disputes among the trio about their lack of progress only adding to the growing sense of despair. A little darkness is all well and good, but this is supposed to be a magical adventure, and the mood of desolation is almost too much at times. But while it might not entertain young children anymore, as a mature mystery it just about keeps the series on track.
Much of that is to do with the strength of the acting from the three leads, and it’s remarkable to see how far they’ve come since their first stilted efforts eight years ago. New characters played by the likes of Bill Nighy and Peter Mullan are briefly fun, while some returning ones like John Hurt barely get a chance to show their face. Maggie Smith doesn’t appear at all, but most missed is Alan Rickman, who has long cast such a devilish shadow as the treacherous Snape. He turns up briefly at the beginning before disappearing along with just about everyone else, and hopefully there will be much more of him come the finale.
In terms of action, it mostly involves Harry, Ron and Hermione being attacked by Death Eaters. Wand battles abound, and they play just like gunfights, which is fun at first but grows repetitious, and there are quite a few dead ends in a plot that meanders and sags in the middle when the three of them go to the Ministry building. Some events are given far more screen time and magnitude than they could possibly deserve, while others are skipped over with one line of dialogue.
The visual effects are as top drawer as you’d have a right to expect from something with a budget of several hundred million dollars and the production design is as rich and detailed as always. But a change in cinematographer from Half-Blood Prince means it’s not quite as dreamy looking, though in fairness the greyer, colder look here reflects the content.
But the highlight of the entire film might well be a mesmerising animated sequence that reveals just what the Deathly Hallows of the title are all about. It’s an exquisitely eerie segment that should provide the jumping point to a rollicking last half hour, but instead we’re taken to a slightly damp finish when we might have been expecting a devastating cliff-hanger.
What we have here is an uneven movie that is at turns touching, exciting and tedious. But ultimately it’s a movie that gives a distinct sense that maybe there isn’t enough content to justify it being split into two parts after all.