Film review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1

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• All that stands between Lord Voldemort and the subjugation of the Muggle world is a small group protecting Harry Potter and his friends

SO HERE it is, the beginning of the end, the first instalment of the final chapter of one of the biggest and most successful cinematic sagas in film history. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 arrives on another predictable wave of hype with a mouthful-of-a-title and no definitive answer to the question of whether it justifies splitting JK Rowling's final opus into two films.

On the one hand it's a big movie from which lots of expository dialogue scenes could perhaps have been trimmed. On the other, after nearly ten years and six previous films, the series has arguably earned the right to be indulgent in a manner similar to Peter Jackson's film versions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Audiences have, after all, consistently and repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to invest time (and money) in following the boy wizard's inexorable journey towards his fated, doom-laden showdown with the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), and the new film's longueurs are mostly the result of an understandable desire to spend more time in the company of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) before the series says goodbye to them forever. To short-change fans at this stage - with a tidy, truncated adaptation of the final book - would perhaps have been as perverse a creative decision as non-believers will undoubtedly find the notion of a two-part children's film destined to eventually clock-in around the five-hour mark.

What's interesting about The Deathly Hallows: Part 1, though, is that its makers haven't exploited the goodwill of its global fanbase simply to repeat what has worked in the past. Where previous episodes were fairly accessible to casual viewers, this one makes no concessions to the uninitiated. If you're not up to speed on the dangers facing Harry, the intricacies of Ron and Hermione's friendship, the implications of Dumbledore's death, or the threat posed to both Hogwarts and the Muggle universe by the rise of Voldemort, don't expect Deathly Hallows to do much hand-holding. There's no pre-credits primer, no Star Wars-style story-so-far text scroll. Instead, director David Yates gives us a brief, shadowy flash of the title card before plunging us into a surprisingly bleak world in which very bad things have already happened - and many more are about to unfold.Of course, it has become a clich to describe each subsequent Potter film as "darker" than the previous offering, but this one certainly justifies the claim. In the opening moments alone Hermione erases all trace of her existence from her Muggle parents' lives, Voldemort executes a former Hogwarts teacher, and Harry has to wrestle with the knowledge that people close to him are prepared to sacrifice their lives to save his.

Moments of levity are few and far between too. Gone (mostly) is Ron's goofy facial mugging and the sometimes-embarrassing diversions into the world of adolescent romance. In their place is a more apocalyptic, melancholic mood, especially in the film's second half, when Harry, Ron and Hermione find themselves alone in a world that seems intent on destroying them. When Christmas takes place in a cemetery and Harry's only moment of respite comes from an impromptu dance with Hermione to a Nick Cave song, you know things aren't looking good.

Before the film goes all Children of Men, though, they go a bit Brazil with an extended and quite marvellous diversion to the Ministry of Magic - a wonderfully nightmarish bureaucratic hellhole of Terry Gilliam-esque proportions. It's here, under Voldemort's fascistic rule, that the business of purifying the magical bloodline can begin by weeding out half-breeds and disseminating hateful propaganda, something that enables all sorts of political subtexts to be projected onto the film. Mercifully it's also the backdrop for great spot of derring-do from Harry and co, as well as being a suitably malevolent locale for properly introducing Peter Mullan's deliciously menacing Death Eater, Yaxley, to the series.

Not that Mullan is given much screen time. This time the action is focused almost exclusively on Harry, Hermione and Ron as they embark on a quest that takes them far away from Hogwarts. Sadly, it's also here that the weaknesses in the film become apparent. Details of said quest introduce a dizzying array of references that require an intimate knowledge of Potter lore to decode, something that slows the film down too much and ironically ensures the final act feels a little rushed. Indeed it's hard to escape the feeling that such pacing might work better when the film is eventually able to be seen as part of a double-bill. Still, if its total success can only be properly measured upon arrival of the conclusion in July, the fact that Part 1 makes that worth waiting for should be taken as some kind of victory.

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