We all know the end is near. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 breaks the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling's epic modern literary classic into two movies, and haunting every frame of this assured and beautiful first half is the knowledge that soon, in 2011, the screen journey will be over. I don't know which had the greater effect: my real melancholy at the thought of looming finality, or the elegance of this necessarily dark and serious penultimate film, in which characters/actors we have watched since childhood are now resourceful young adults. But I do know I felt a swell of love and awe wash over me from the very first wickedly creepy scene until the profoundly moving last one. Under the direction of David Yates in Goldilocks terms, he's Just Right, having gently guided the series to more consistent excellence in pace and tone with the last two installments Part 1 is the most cinematically rewarding chapter yet.
What a marvel it is, this Harry Potter movie business! What a spell the experience casts, now that every detail is so familiar to us, from the ghostly sound of the signature minor-key musical theme to the sight of Voldemort's hideous noseless face! All the grand British thespians who bring Rowling's convocation of wizardly characters to life, from Alan Rickman and Imelda Staunton to Michael Gambon and Robbie Coltrane, do so with utterly serious gusto. As for Hogwarts besties Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley, we've lived side by side for so long with Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint that their (re)appearance carries honest emotional weight: We've known them since they were kids!
In The Deathly Hallows, of course, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are deep in their struggle toward adulthood, truly on their own and unprotected, except by one another. (Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is nowhere to be seen this time.) The final showdown between the Chosen One (Harry) and the Dark Lord (Voldemort, embodied with chilling, hairless silkiness by Ralph Fiennes) is still to come. Meanwhile, the schoolmates are on a continued mission to find and destroy the Horcruxes, those magical bits of his black soul that Voldemort has hidden in order to hang on to immortality. The world is an anxious, paranoid place, what with the Dark Lord's Death Eaters on the loose. The look of the movie is apocalyptically desolate too when it's not baroquely sepulchral, as it is in the bowels of the Ministry of Magic. An early scene at Voldemort's dinner table, surrounded by his senior Death Eaters, is terrifying.
All this takes a toll on Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Or maybe, as Rowling so astutely weaves into her books, it's the not-so-magically dispelled fears, doubts, and longings of true adulthood that weigh the trio down. Either way, Yates, working with cinematographer Eduardo Serra (Girl With a Pearl Earring), keeps the picture poised between the gaping future (i.e., Harry's scheduled showdown with Voldemort) and the groping present, as the three friends test their adult support of one another. In one of the movie's sweetest wordless moments, Harry comforts Hermione. Ron has stormed off after a fight with Harry, Hermione is sad and troubled, and Harry spontaneously leads his dear friend in a dance. The scene isn't in the book; it's the rare deviation of an addition to the sacred text, rather than an unavoidable cut made for Muggle-driven movie purposes. Yet the gesture is so tender, and such a welcome breath of warmth in such a dark time, that the grace note demonstrates an integrity I feel sure Rowling would applaud. This is who Harry Potter has grown up to be: a young man strong enough to love his friends (including dear, devoted Dobby the house elf; O Dobby!), clever enough to outwit his foes, and brave enough to face his future. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 also bravely faces the future, slipping with expert ease among the thrilling mass of complications (and complicated set pieces) that Rowling throws fans in the final sprint, then guiding the faithful to the fate that awaits everyone in this world, the moment called The End. A-