Theoretically sequels and novel adaptations should hold up on their own merits but what is slightly tricky about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is that it’s not just an adaptation but also the seventh part of a franchise and the first part of a final story. If you’ve never read the novels and only ever saw the previous Harry Potter films once when initially released then you are going to be confounded by a lot of the details and you will have trouble remembering the significance of the many supporting characters. However, maybe once a film franchise has gone this far (an impressive feat in itself) it can be let off the hook for no longer filling in big chunks of back-story for newcomers and casual viewers.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 actually works reasonably well as its own film and considering it is adapted from only the first half of a novel, it feels remarkably complete. For a start, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) all go through a substantial character arc that is satisfyingly resolved. While Hermione and Ron were disappointingly pushed to the side for a lot of the previous film (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), they get a lot more to do in this one with both actors getting a chance to express a range of emotions, which works out a lot better for Emma Watson than it does for Rupert Grint. The dynamic between the trio also firmly establishes Hermione’s importance, which is a welcome far cry from the very problematic dynamic in the early films where Hermione’s studiousness (as opposed to Harry’s natural talents) was a source of derision.
This film completely abandons the Hogwarts setting, which loses the terrific structure of having each film set around a specific school year. Just like the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (where each season was set around a school and then college year) such a structure allowed for the characters to face particular dangers and challenges that reflected their emotional journey throughout the school year. Part seven of the franchise seems no longer concerned with such matters and instead opts for all out fantasy, with several features that while not completely derivative of other classic fantasy texts, are blatantly familiar.
The focus on finding and destroying the magical objects known as Horcruxes, which give power to evil-doers and corrupts good-doers, seems lifted straight from The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 also contains a magical sword at the bottom of a lake as per the King Arthur legend but it’s most interesting allusions are to the Holocaust and Nazism, which were also heavily evoked in the original Star Wars trilogy – another wildly popular film franchise. In Harry Potter the world of magic is now officiated over with the iron fist of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his followers, who in their contempt for Muggles (humans) are rounding up the perceived-to-be-inferior half-blood wizards and witches. Victims of this non-witch hunt are lead away by black uniformed officials who look like Gestapo officers and taken into the depths of the Ministry of Magic. One character even gets “mud blood” carved into their arm like a concentration camp tattoo. Hopefully in Part 2 this symbolism is explored further because while it adds a curious extra layer of depth to Part 1 it isn’t yet fully developed.
This is the third film in the series directed by David Yates who continues to make the series darker (this one features more blood than previously) and who continues to overuse a green wash to make everything feel a bit gloomy. The film lags badly in the middle, the acting is very uneven and some moments are completely naff. However, it also includes a terrific opening chase sequence, an exciting wand shoot-out, an impressive animation sequence and a moving farewell to a fairly minor character that somehow evokes far more pathos than Dumbledore’s death at the end of the previous film. While Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 certainly doesn’t fulfil the expectations created by parts three and four in the series, it’s still a slight improvement on the stodgy parts five and six. If nothing else, this penultimate film does leave you anticipating how it will all turn out in the final film, which is a lot more than can be said about other comparative film franchises.