When Warner Bros. announced that the seventh and final book of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, would be two movies, it occurred to me that the company had been insufficiently ambitious. If, as reported, Warner executives are scared of running short on tentpoles (i.e., the so-called franchises that prop up the studio), they should at the very least divide the next half in half. Following Zeno’s Paradox, they could even turn Deathly Hallows into an infinite number of sequels with Beckett-like arcs of nonaction: “Let’s apparate.” [They do not move.]
In all seriousness, there’s nothing wrong with the 146-minute Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 that couldn’t be solved if this were, as the Brits would say, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Full Stop. Director David Yates did a fine, spooky job with the sixth installment, and the cast of this one includes the last well-known British theater types who aren’t identified with The Lord of the Rings: Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, and Peter Mullan. (I can’t resist listing the others, in alphabetical order: Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, John Hurt, Miranda Richardson, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, David Thewlis, and Julie Walters—and that’s just in Hallows 1. Kenneth Branagh, Gary Oldman, Maggie Smith, and Emma Thompson have popped up in others.) What’s lacking this time is something more, well, conclusive for each of them to do. Most of them stand around and elocute half-heartedly, as if it were Halloween time at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Hallows’s first hour is deadly, all right. Yates gums up a CGI-heavy aerial attack in which, to confuse Voldemort’s hordes, all the good guys have been transformed into Harry look-alikes, missing the obvious sight gag: the villains bewildered by a plethora of bespectacled young men of small stature. Harry and company’s daring raid on the Ministry of Magic to purloin another horcrux is hobbled by a) bloat, b) poor staging, and c) a failure to remind us what a horcrux is. I’ve read all the damn books and seen all the movies, and I still need the occasional refresher.
Come to think of it, what play best are the later, Beckett-like nonaction scenes—the overlong section in the novel in which Harry, Hermione, and Ron drift around the English countryside, dodging Voldemort’s “snatchers” and getting on one another’s nerves. On this denuded landscape under low, gray skies, the feel is paranoid, postapocalyptic—you half expect flesh-eating zombies to amble by—and it’s easy to see why, by this point in the series, the trio’s well of affectionate banter has run dry. Ron, his mind somehow clouded by the horcrux, thinks Harry and Hermione have something going, although Emma Watson has even less romantic chemistry with Daniel Radcliffe than she does with the big, bumpkinish Rupert Grint. She looks as if she’s itching to get this Potter thing behind her so she can start swiping parts from Keira Knightley.
Deathly Hallows: Part 1 has some excellent scares (Yates is better with ghouls than with chases), and there’s always Fiennes as that flesh-reptile Voldemort to pop up and mortify someone (in the original sense). His bits have evolved into virtuosic production numbers—he declaims like Captain Hook if the crocodile had bitten off his nose. I hope that in Part 2, Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves give Fiennes a better send-off than Dame J.K. did in her less-than-wizardly climactic wandathon. Having made us sit through two and a half hours with no payoff, they’d better not go all Muggle on us. Next time, we want magic, people.
Why are Brits so much more adroit than Yanks at pumping fresh blood into hoary melodramas? My guess is that it’s their social-realist tradition: They know if they don’t get the milieu just right, they’ll get a stern talking-to from Michael Apted. The latest U.K. winner is the true-life-inspired feminist-union picture Made in Dagenham, which, beat by narrative beat, ought to have you rolling your eyes instead of balling your fists and audibly urging on its heroine, Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins). The time is 1968, when every morning, the working-class women of Dagenham pedal up to the gates of the Ford Motor Company, where they’ll unbutton their tops to give themselves room to stretch, settle in behind their old machines, and stitch car seats for a fraction of the wages of their male counterparts. They’re incensed when Ford decides to change their status from semi-skilled to unskilled, but it’s only when their tough little union rep, Albert (Bob Hoskins), pulls Rita from the ranks and tugs her along to a meeting with management that the stakes change. There’ll be no more corporate stalling, no more jabber about slow, incremental progress. These boots are made for walkouts.