Is it just me, or are these Harry Potter movies finally getting good? At first glance, director David Yates' TV resume looked rather lightweight compared to the heavy-hitters who had helmed the earlier Potter films: Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell. But he has made two of the best entries of the lot — the last one, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and now this, the latest and darkest of the series, which clocks in at almost two-and-a-half hours and still only manages to get through about two-thirds of the final novel. (Yates is also directing Part 2, in which things will presumably get even darker before they get brighter.)
Of course, there are perfectly valid reasons why the series should improve as it goes along. Perhaps the main reason, though, is that the action has moved beyond the walls of that Victorian-fetishist's wet dream Hogwarts School, which has now been taken over by the fascist minions of the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, prosthetically sporting what appears to be my cat's nose). Our almost-grown heroes Harry Potter (nerdily tormented Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (nerdily buff Rupert Grint), and Hermione Granger (beautifully bullet-like Emma Watson) are now on the run — chased all over the place by swooshing armies of Death Eaters, who are easily identified by their menacing black vapor trails.
The good guys need to find and destroy the horcruxes, which contain pieces of Voldemort's fragmented soul. Meanwhile, the evil lord himself wants to destroy Harry, crush the previous atmosphere of tolerance within the wizarding world, and become all-powerful — not necessarily in that order. Also, he has a giant snake.
The important point is that this lumbering series has finally gained some actual urgency. Full disclosure: I have not read J.K. Rowling's popular fantasy novels (I'm waiting until my son is old enough to enjoy them with me) and have seen the films mostly out of professional duty, so I'm not exactly the target audience here. But to my eyes and ears, the early Potter films suffered from being light entertainments posing as profound epics. Massive books can be absorbing, and by all accounts the Potter books are. The movies, however, seemed to collapse under the weight of their portent, their apparent mandatory fidelity to the source material and their exhausting exposition.
That said, they did show flashes of inspiration — that Quidditch match from the first film is still a marvel, even if its effects seem outdated. And yes, there were occasional bits of menace that suggested something interesting might yet develop. When Fiennes first showed up for Voldemort's brief appearance near the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it was like lightning had suddenly struck a particularly moribund film.
Which brings us to Yates, who seems to understand pacing and drama — or at least this kind of series-based, episodic pacing and drama — better than his Potter forebears. It's evident right from the get-go, particularly during a heartbreaking early moment when Hermione, preparing to leave her family, wipes her parents' minds clean. In the previous films, such emotional scenes often had a made-up quality: They played like a pastiche of drama, rather than actual drama. But here it works — in part because the character is older, in part because there's more at stake, but mostly because the scene is shot through with genuine feeling. The hesitation on the young girl's face as she holds out her wand towards her own father and mother and finally whispers "Obliviate" is rendered with an honesty that suggests both director and actress understand the subtle power dynamics at play here.
The various romantic entanglements have also made a quantum leap. What seemed like awkward movie puppy love before now has real consequence. If you'd told me that the new Harry Potter film would have a scene of Harry and Hermione dancing to a Nick Cave song, I probably wouldn't have stopped vomiting for a month. Go figure: The scene works because it actually feels like two scared teenagers dancing to momentarily defuse the tension building up around them.
Little emotional details like that can add up to a whole lot. So does a willingness to embrace the dark, occasionally graphic overtones of the story itself. When we finally learn what the Deathly Hallows are, the film launches into an extended animation sequence created by Ben Hibon that utilizes a shadow-puppet aesthetic to tell a gruesome, bloody tale. The result literally gave me nightmares. In no way does it feel out of place in this constantly engaging, occasionally beautiful and surprisingly terrifying movie.
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