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Movie Review

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One

More suspense than action in ‘Deathly Hallows’

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / November 18, 2010

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How should we treat “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’’? Warner Bros. offers the instructive “Part One.’’ J.K. Rowling, of course, did no such thing. “Deathly Hallows’’ was the seventh and final novel of the series, and though it weighed the same as a school bus, that, ultimately, was that. The film has split the book, rather crassly, in half. “Part One’’ features the most deliriously inspired moviemaking since “The Prisoner of Azkaban,’’ from 2004, but I’m not sure I believe Warner Bros. is ready to part with a franchise that’s pulled in the equivalent of the gross domestic product of most of the islands in the Caribbean.

They’ve promised to deliver “Part Two’’ next July. But based on the way this first half stretches to 146 minutes, with credits, one can easily imagine Steve Kloves, who’s adapted most of the books, and the talented David Yates, making his third “Potter’’ film in a row, wringing hours of movie from a single page.

“The Deathly Hallows’’ ends as it begins, in Lord Voldemort’s creepy thrall. But the film has enough moments of silence and shots of its three heroes doing nothing so much as looking spiritually put-upon to pass muster at European art houses. On one hand, scenes of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) trekking through the woods and across moors are precious filler. On another, they’re daring. Before it culminates in a showdown with Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who murdered Harry’s parents, the “Harry Potter’’ series detours into a quest narrative in which Harry hunts for and destroys Voldemort’s soul-possessing “horcruxes’’ while Voldemort hunts for him. It’s been impressively divided between derring-do and downtime.

It’s hard to think of another blockbuster devoting so much of itself to its young protagonists’ existential and hormonal angst. (And so little music: Alexandre Desplat’s score often consists only of sounds, and, occasionally, the remote braying of a lone brass instrument.) Ron’s angst is a comic blend of attraction and repulsion. Before he slays a particularly nasty horcrux, he must endure the fantasy it generates, staring at his crush, Hermione, going at it with Harry. The shocking sensuality of the image enrages him enough to destroy its source and will force a few older moviegoers to retrieve eyes popped out of young heads. For Ron’s part, it’s for him to spend the rest of the film thinking what certain paying customers are: She's really hot.

That make-out session looks like a computer made it, but it’s more convincing (and more physically intense) than the big 3-D love scene in “Avatar.’’ In a display of mercy, plans to convert “The Deathly Hallows’’ to 3-D were scrapped. Could no one manufacture enough Real-D glasses to resemble Harry’s? In any case, bits that would have been gimmicky in 3-D are now legitimately scary: Voldemort’s enormous, professor-eating serpent lunging at the screen, say.

Voldemort himself is a diabolical piece of work. One of the achievements of the “Deathly Hallows’’ is that it’s one of the few “Harry Potter’’ films not to feel like a Halloween ball. The actors have always inhabited their roles with requisite whimsy or seriousness. But Fiennes’s Voldemort is a figure of almost biblical proportions. Indeed, the opening scene, with him at the head of a table, presiding over the series’ hideous regulars — Helena Bonham-Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange; Jason Isaacs and Tom Felton as the Malfoys; Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, who appears from ribbons of smoke; the wonderful, growling Peter Mullan as Yaxley — feels like a last supper. (Only the snake eats, but never mind.)

Fiennes’s face remains his behind walls of clammy prosthetic that turn the character into a yogurt-covered peanut. Yet, he emits an evil you rarely experience in mass-market entertainment. It’s all too real. When he says he intends to kill Harry, he means it. That table scene is a brilliant note to strike so soon. Voldemort has always hovered over these movies. But this is the first time Fiennes’s performance has, too. It’s a shame that we spend so much time running from him. We’re appalled and yet seduced.

Luckily, Yates can compensate for a physical lack of Voldemort with a wonderland of set pieces that range from the apocalyptic to the fantastic. An animated interlude explaining the film’s title is told in silhouettes that turn expressionist as the flat surfaces swell in foreboding dimension. The palette and textures are simple — sepia, char, gossamer, lace, and gauze — but unspeakably beautiful.

Like Alfonso Cuarón, who made “Azkaban,’’ Yates and his crew are as visually descriptive as Rowling was with language. One chase through the Ministry of Magic, a vast, unnavigable government space that Harry, Ron, and Hermione visit in disguise, is ingenious, suspenseful entertainment. No direct route exists for any destination. Elevators, for instance, travel laterally before they shoot down or up. The building projects government bureaucracy not simply in its structural convolutions but in its visual conception. The space is a flipbook of modern design history (futurism, rococo, Art Deco, Surrealism) whose open and confined spaces and gleaming black surfaces are an architectural dream of Fascist Italy, Terry Gilliam, and an onyx-tiled Oz. But the ministry’s legislative and prosecutorial doings suggest a heavier, darker conflation: Capitol Hill and Guantanamo Bay. The forest to which Harry and the gang flee is like the forests in all the other “Potter’’ movies but, this time, arriving there from the ministry feels newly loaded: It could be the woods of “The Conformist’’ or “The Godfather.’’

After all these movies, Kloves has found a way to let the adaptations breathe without Rowling’s life-support. The previous film, “The Half-Blood Prince,’’ was abundant with sexuality, hallucinogens, and magic. But its ultimate purpose was to get us to “The Deathly Hallows.’’ Now we’re here, ready to mourn the end, only to have to come back next summer. Why not one 4 1/2- or 5-hour movie? “Harry Potter’’ readers have buns of steel. For a studio so clearly willing to take risks with so many of its movies, this particular movie has a whiff of exploitation. Rowling wrote one epic funeral that Warner Bros. requires us to attend twice.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review referred incorrectly to Hermione Granger's relationship with Ron. They merely pine for each other. The review also misstated the number of "Harry Potter" film David Yates has directed. It's three.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS

Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Steve Kloves, adapted from the novel by J.K. Rowling

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, and every other living British actor

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Jordan’s IMAX in Reading and Natick, suburbs

Running time: 146 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images, and sensuality, which for some viewers might also qualify as a frightening image)