At first, it seemed more like accounting sleight of hand than movie magic: Hollywood tucks seven best-selling books into its top hat, waves a wand, and pulls out what we can safely assume will be eight blockbuster films. The decision to split Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two movies felt disingenuous, especially since the series' longest book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was successfully whittled into the franchise's shortest film. But as the credits roll on director David Yates' third installment in the series, it's clear that J.K. Rowling's sprawling finale simply could not have been crammed into one movie. Potter neophytes might as well forget it, but series fans should be more than satisfied with Yates' intricate, melancholy ramp-up to the story's final showdown.
Deathly Hallows: Part 1 picks up just after the grim events that closed Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Voldemort and his Death-Eaters have taken over, quickly assuming control of the Ministry of Magic, Hogwarts, and every other institution in the wizard world. Echoes of the Third Reich are everywhere, from magical print shops that produce anti-Muggle propaganda to the disappearances of citizens suspected of having Muggle ancestry. The price on Harry's head has reached a premium, so the young wizard, with his two best friends in tow, sets out on his own to find the remaining Horcruxes—enchanted objects that each contain a piece of Voldemort's diseased soul.
This time around, the theme for the trio is separation—separation from the security of Hogwarts, from the protection of their elder wizards, and, as paranoia and jealousy set in, separation from one another. Though a few spectacular set pieces are spread throughout the film's 146-minute running time, most of it focuses on the relationships among Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) as they take their final steps toward adulthood. It's also a trial by fire for the three young actors at the center of the film. For the first time since the franchise began almost a decade ago, the three must carry a movie without much help from the cast of terrific (and seasoned) supporting actors who usually surround them. Each actor, particularly Watson, proves entirely capable of carrying the burden, and Deathly Hallows gives each a well-deserved turn in the spotlight.
The real star of the show, though, is scribe and series stalwart Steve Kloves, who does a remarkable job with the unenviable task of weaving the book's many subplots into a coherent film narrative. It's unavoidably messy at times, but Kloves' script strikes a nice balance between recapping the six previous installments and keeping the story moving forward. When there is exposition to be delivered, Kloves and Yates should be commended for finding interesting ways to do it, including a dazzling animation sequence that's worth the price of admission all by itself. Anyone new to the series will likely be lost, but the faithful Potter masses should have no trouble keeping up with the intricate, if unstructured and somewhat rambling, narrative.
Deathly Hallows is the messiest franchise installment in more ways than one. Though the series has always courted the macabre, the latest film veers further into horror territory than any that have come before it. Yates, bound to deliver a PG-13 film, borrows tricks from the classic "less is more" school of horror, to chilling effect. When Hermione finds the body of a murdered witch, we see only a cloud of buzzing flies and a blood-splattered ceiling; later, when Hermione is tortured by Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, in a small but deliciously demented turn), we only hear her screams from the next room. The rest is left to the viewer's imagination, which will construct something just as emotionally harrowing as anything in the Hostel films.
The mood is helped along by a string-heavy score by Alexandre Desplat and elegant, shadowy cinematography by Eduardo Serra. Even the natural settings help evoke the film's brooding, apprehensive tone; Harry, Ron, and Hermione spend much of their time regrouping in frostbitten forests and rocky British dales. Under Yates' assured hand, Deathly Hallows is the darkest franchise installment yet, even with liberal doses of humor sprinkled throughout.
Ultimately, the success of Deathly Hallows will depend on its conclusion, due out in July. If the first installment has a serious flaw, it's that it doesn't really feel like a complete, stand-alone movie—just as things start to heat up for the series' dramatic finale, the credits roll. One thing is certain, though: The end is off to a very good start.