A far cry from its early predecessors, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has little room for cheer. Gone are the snug dorms nestled in a hidden Hogwarts hallway -- for Hogwarts itself, save for a small resistance from within, has been taken over by Death Eaters -- and gone is the wisdom and comfort offered by late headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Most notably missing are any traces of wide-eyed innocence from Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson). In its place are anxiety, dread, uncertainty, and even occasional moral ambiguity. The dark tone, however, is in no way a dissuasive element; as fans of the books will point out, it is in keeping with the series. As Harry grew, his initial impressions of the wizard world as a utopian community populated by kindly magicians and fantastical shops evolved into a more realistic picture of a world that, while enchanted, carries its own share of bigotry, greed, and political corruption. As J.K. Rowling wove a conclusion as ominous as it was elegant in the final installment of the Potter series, so too has director David Yates in Part 1 of Deathly Hallows.
Rather than taking the Hogwarts Express to complete their final year at school, Harry, Ron, and Hermione abandon the familiar territory of boarding school to search for Horcruxes -- that is, pieces of soul that evil wizard extraordinaire Voldemort has extricated from his body and hidden throughout the world, ensuring his immortality so long as they are not all destroyed. Despite the trio's absence from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the protective walls of the school are as palpable as they've ever been. From a story standpoint, it's an emotional time. Moreover, for those who have watched Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint as they've grown into young adults since their debuts in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), it's almost a point of pride to witness their improvements as actors. As usual, the adult British thespians are superb, and the addition of Welsh actor Rhys Ifans as the loopy but loveable Luna Lovegood's father is a welcome and unanticipated piece of casting. Reprising his role as Voldemort, Ralph Fiennes gets more face time than he has before, allowing Voldemort to finally live up to his cruel reputation.
Never before have the allusions to World War II been as strong as they are in this film. In the wrong hands, this could have been at best ineffective, at worst in extremely bad taste. However, the depiction of the Ministry of Magic turned into an office of propaganda, wherein even its employees are subject to inquiries regarding their bloodline, is exactly as ominous and tragic as systematic tyranny warrants. Without spoiling a particularly effective scene, a bit of imagery so deeply reminiscent of a signature of Nazi concentration camps imparts far more terror than its counterpart in the novel (torture inflicted by curse alone). Out of all the Potter adaptations, this film most closely matches (and, arguably, outdoes) the pacing of the books. Though time constraints have forced the film to spend less time focusing on the trio roaming throughout the countryside, each facing a personal crisis, Yates is able to put across the most important elements of that period: they are isolated from the world; frustrated at their lack of progress; doubtful, for the first time, of the task they were entrusted with by Dumbledore; and trying, not always successfully, to keep despair at bay.
Deathly Hallows has moments that aren't user-friendly to viewers who haven't read the book -- few would guess the shard of glass Harry carries with him is part of the magical two-way mirror left to him by his deceased godfather, and the story of the rogue wizard Grindelwald is glossed over in a series of confusing, fast-moving images Harry glimpses in dreams. The emotional significance of Dobby the elf's role in the film is also lost somewhat, as the character has barely merited so much as a reference since Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Nonetheless, the story of the Deathly Hallows themselves is told in detail during an exquisitely wrought animated sequence chronicling the tale of three brothers whose run-in with Death itself brought about consequences that would reverberate for many years afterward, and the cliffhanger ending leaves fans in eager anticipation of a second act that, hopefully, will continue on as beautifully as the first.