One of the most remarkable aspects of the Harry Potter movie franchise has been the way it’s held onto its core cast, letting audiences watch the actors mature along with the characters and J.K. Rowling’s progressively darker material. But nothing else about the films has been as consistent. Each new director has brought in his own look, tone, and sensibility to book-to-film adaptation. In the latest installment, David Yates (who helmed the previous two films, as well as the final one, due out in July 2011) takes his serious approach to the material to new extremes, making it into the oddest Harry Potter yet: an awkward mating of action-fantasy and a self-reflective indie movie.
Like its immediate predecessor, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 makes no bones about being part of a longer work rather than a stand-alone film. It begins mid-speech and ends mid-story. With Harry’s chief protector dead and his enemy Voldemort openly taking over, Harry and his closest friends isolate themselves to fight behind the scenes. Lacking allies or sanctuary, they become depressed and aimless, prompting long sequences in which they stare moodily into space; have strained, muttered, pause-packed conversations; or in one case, share a spontaneous melancholy dance to Nick Cave’s “O Children.” A long middle sequence of wandering (and grim, gloomy posing) is set against glorious, Lord Of The Rings-like natural backdrops, which unfortunately just heighten the stiffness. The pacing is endlessly aggravating: It’s just as well Yates didn’t attempt to cram the final book’s action into an eviscerated single film, and it’s admirable how he attempts to stretch out, to patiently build a mood and let audiences feel the characters’ directionless anxiety. But the result is a herky-jerky movie that alternates glacial brooding with unwieldy chunks of exposition and frenzied, rushed battles.
It’s hard to fault Yates too much; apart from a few tweaks, he’s largely following the original book, which also alternated draggy frustration with reams of exposition. But Yates and series screenwriter Steve Kloves only intermittently find ways to make the material spark onscreen. Most of the content of this film is wheel-spinning or conscious setup for the final installment, and that feels apparent at every melodramatic moment.