Dir. David Yates
(2010, PG-13, 150 min)
★ ★ ★

At first, I thought a better title would have been Harry Potter and the Treacherous Exposition. For a while, The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 — the penultimate film in the decade-long franchise — seems saturated with it. First we meet a new character, the Minister of Magic (Bill Nighy). Then we’re reintroduced to about a dozen of the good guys and another dozen bad guys, some more familiar than others; I never re-watch the previous films before seeing a new one — feels too much like homework — so I’ve grown accustomed to forgetting and relearning certain details as I go along.

Then comes a potion that turns everyone into decoys for Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). And then various magical objects bequeathed to the principal characters by the dearly departed Dumbledore, who was killed in the previous film. They include a mystical sword that absorbs powerful substances but has gone missing. And then there’s the continued search for Horcruxes, objects that need to be destroyed in order to defeat Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who cannot use his own wand to kill Harry because his and Harry’s wands are constructed with the same magical core … or something like that. I wondered how splitting the final novel into two films would affect the storytelling; this time screenwriter Steve Kloves has five hours instead of two-and-a-half across which to let his narrative sprawl. I had expected greater detail, but hoped the details would be more interesting.

The Evil League of Evil

What differentiates this film from the ones that came before, much more than the exposition — all the Potter films have had their share of magical whosits and whatsits, which Buffy the Vampire Slayer-creator Joss Whedon likes to call “phlebotinum” — is that it takes place entirely outside of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and follows the core group of Harry, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) almost exclusively. The previous films were distinguished by strong performances from some of Britain’s premier actors, like Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, and Helena Bonham Carter, but this time around they’re reduced to marginal cameos, if they appear at all.

Focusing on the core trio has its benefits and its drawbacks. On one hand, paring down the story to its central group creates an opportunity for crucial character development and a greater sense of intimacy than has been possible in the more crowded Hogwarts-set films. On the other hand, Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson, though I’ve grown fond of all three, have never been the films’ strongest actors, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione, perhaps surprisingly, have not always been the most interesting characters. I remember more vividly the likes of Imelda Staunton’s imperious Dolores Umbrage from Order of the Phoenix, who returns in this film; Jim Broadbent’s Horace Slughorn from Half-Blood Prince, the only film in the series to appear on my list of the year’s best films; and the Dumbledores played by Richard Harris and then Michael Gambon.

While on the run, a kind of love triangle develops between the three teenagers, exacerbated by an evil amulet that intensifies dark emotions. The amulet is one of the Horcruxes and must be destroyed, if only they knew how; we half expect them to run into Frodo and Samwise on their way to Mount Doom. I wasn’t quite convinced by the intense jealousy and acrimony. Ron and Hermione’s relationship has been developed so mildly, and Hermione’s relationship with Harry is so chaste, that the romantic rivalry feels forced. An innocent dance between Harry and Hermione is about as close as the film gets to Y Tu Mama Tambien, which makes me think Alfonso Cuaron, who directed Tambien as well as the third Potter film, Prisoner of Azkaban, might have been better suited to guide this particular storyline.

Ralph Fiennes, as Lord Voldemort

But director David Yates, back from Half-Blood Prince, nevertheless succeeds more often than not. As in the previous film, he’s a sure hand with pacing, letting scenes develop without rushing them and letting the story expand without dragging. It improves greatly in its second half, after the whosits and whatsits have been explained and the story takes on greater urgency. There comes an animated sequences explaining more of the backstory, and what could have been just more exposition to chew on is given the dark grandeur of myth.

Yates is visually attentive, taking advantage of deep landscapes and detailed set design, filling scenes with visual interest. But for this film he doesn’t have the benefit of Bruno Delbonnel, the cinematographer who made Half-Blood Prince by far the most beautiful film of the series. This time he’s working with Eduardo Serra, who is no slouch; he notably photographed The Girl with the Pearl Earring in 2003, giving it visual textures inspired by the painting of its title. Here he does handsome work, along with production designer Stuart Craig, who has worked on all the Potter films and gives the world outside Hogwarts as much rich detail as he gave the world within. However, Yates isn’t quite as good this time around with action scenes, which flash across the screen in messy, indistinct blurs of CGI and editing.

I can’t help but hope that Part 2, to be released next summer, gives attention to more of the sublime talent in front of the camera, especially Fiennes, who at his best has played Voldemort with sublime, almost Shakespearean gusto. And with just one film left, let’s hope that most of the phlebotinum is behind us as well.