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Does he like what he sees? Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.

The Set-Up

By Ann Morrow

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Directed by David Yates

Above the conference table, a woman is suspended, in obvious distress, and showing signs of having been tortured. At the head of the table is Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) surrounded by his minions; Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) among them. And revealing itself from underneath is a snake, a monstrous reptile that slithers toward the woman with its jaws open wide. The scene borders on horror, and that’s just for starters in the darkest, and final, book in J.K. Rowling’s epic saga of the wizardly kids of Hogwarts.

Only they’re not at Hogwarts anymore, and they’re no longer kids. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are on their own after a wondrously choreographed—and tragically sabotaged—escape from the evil forces that have taken over the Ministry of Magic. This epic first half (Part 2 is scheduled for release in July) has come a long, long way from The Chamber of Secrets. Though it’s not the best in the series (returning director David Yates has yet to match the enchantment that Alfonso Cuaron brought to The Prisoner of Azkaban), Deathly Hallows does the justice to the book’s eddying plunges of darkness and despair without being a downer. Even the fascist overtones to the Ministry’s corrupt regime (ensconced in a gleaming edifice that’s as forbidding as any dungeon), where Muggles and other folk of impure wizard lineage are declared enemies of the realm, the school-spun spells and daring of the trio create a diverting ruckus. In this installment, it’s especially fortunate that the series has kept its original actors, and all three handle the nastier aspects of the story with aplomb.

And that’s important, because for overly long stretches of narrative, they wander the wilds, searching for horcruxes (objects containing the slivered soul of Voldemort) while evading Death-Eaters (an excellently costumed rabble of post-Mod fops) and being drawn into the deeper, older magic of the Deathly Hallows, three talismans of legendary power. If you don’t know what the Deathly Hallows are, you may get lost in the plot, but once lost, you may not care, since the screenplay by Harry Potter movie stalwart Steve Kloves explains it as well as could be expected, including a shadow puppet story-within-the-story. It’s during their downtime in a desolate campsite that the plots sags, as Harry, Ron, and Hermione engage in talky, young-adult behaviors that slow the action. More moving are their individual efforts to come to terms with what their quest is doing to their families, and that includes Harry, who journeys to the village of his birth to visit his parents’ gravesite, a risky trek that leads him into the depths of deception. This twist almost makes up for a poorly designed sequence in which Ron encounters his worst fears—and the series’ first tacky attempt at sexing up the visuals.

Newbie Rhys Ifans may not be of a caliber of other guest thespians such as Jim Broadbent, but he’s perfect as Luna’s loony father, who is strategically out-of-it in mind and action. The film changes tone more than is necessary, especially in contrast to the previous installment, The Half-Blood Prince, which created an entire universe out of an especially magical rendering of Hogwarts. Academy Award heavyweights Alexandre Desplat (composer) and Eduardo Serra (cinematography) are given distracting prominence—the score is a bit bombastic, and Serra is a shade too realistic in his depictions of windswept desolation. Still, the wider vistas do contribute to the story’s controlled sprawl, and the absence of Professor Dumbledore (and Michael Gambon’s irreplaceable magnetism) can’t be helped: Harry is heading to his destiny as the Chosen One, a destiny that Part 1 does a better job of setting up than foretelling.

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