Few critics have been kind to the Harry Potter franchise. The early entries – cosy, Christmas-afternoon affairs – were dismissed as mere family fare, stock characters writ large against a backdrop of rudimentary CGI and English RADA alumni. Interest piqued at Alfonso Cuarons involvement with 2004s Prisoner of Azkaban, but the shift signalled by this films darkening themes and heightened drama has never really been accepted by the press, keen to keep the series safely consigned to the family film pigeonhole.
Some critics cling, increasingly desperately, to their fixed idea that the only correct audience for Potter has yet to obtain a National Insurance card, and that anyone else furtively occupying a seat in a screening should be on a register somewhere. But from Cuarons desaturated interpretation onwards theres been a heck of a lot to like about these films, and with the first part of the Deathly Hallows theres a fair bit to love too.
The film opens with uncharacteristic understatement, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) overseeing the ending of their familiar lives. As Hermiones image – and hence her parents memory of her – fades from picture-frames and the Dursleys drive away theres none of the usual humour that introduces each installment, the pitiless excoriation of the banality of modern living that the brief scenes with Potters relatives has always provided.
Theres little dialogue either, the cross-cut scenes more Mike Leigh than Michael Bay as Hermione closes the door on her childhood home and heads into a lonely, colourless suburbia. Even the title sequence lacks the familiar theme, the silence by now pretty oppressive.
Restraint isnt a notion usually associated with blockbusters. We pay our money, buy our popcorn and expect two hours where we dont have to think. But this is a surprisingly restrained film – its best moments are not the chase scene over Dartford nor the numerous Death Eater attacks. Rather, the films best scenes focused upon the Malfoys. Their presence bookends the film, a duplicate zoom into their country estate introducing the Deathly Hallows two key dramatic sequences, both highlighting the Malfoy familys growing discomfort with the new world order that theyve helped to bring about.
The Malfoys become trapped within an impossible situation at the start of the Deathly Hallows. Helena Bonham Carters Bellatrix might be the poster girl for the films evil but the Malfoys are its shadow, squirming from the source and fraying at the edges. The opening scene also showcases Ralph Fiennes excellent performance as Voldemort – his role is no longer blighted with hints of pantomime excess but nuanced and guarded and all the more effective for it.
This instalment certainly benefits from getting away from Hogwarts. Potter, Granger and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) travel from central London streets to snowy cliff-edges, their campsites ranging from lonely cooling towers to the Humber Bridge. Unlike the book theres little sag here, a constant tension and frequent near-misses underpinning their hopeless meanderings.
Fears that the three leads would be unable to carry the second act by themselves (the previous films have had an omnipresent background of more tested thespians to distract from the younger actors limitations) are ultimately unfounded: theyre each more than adequate, especially Grint, whos primarily responsible for the few comic moments in the film.
Outside of Dobby, whose cartoony voice and appearance dont match the gravitas of the film, there really is little to fault here. Visually the Deathly Hallows is absolutely astounding, and despite the muted colour scheme cinematographer Eduardo Serra gives every frame vigor and life. The standout sequence is the tale of the three brothers, rendered through animated shadow puppets in a similar vein to the introduction to Guillermo Del Toros Hellboy sequel. Its superb, award-worthy stuff.
The many set-pieces – the broomstick battles, the wedding-crash, the infiltration of the fascistic Ministry – are also impeccably-realised. Elves aside, the visual effects here are exceptional, and should not be overlooked by the Oscars next Spring.
The plot details are manageable, despite conflicting focuses on Hallows and Horcruxes. David Yates decision to split the story in two was a wise one: the film retains much of the books content and is remarkably faithful to the text. Overall, Potters world seems safer, somehow, and the darkness welcoming.