Film: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 1 **
(12A, GENERAL RELEASE)
Parting is such sweet sorrow, and Warner Brothers must be feeling particularly teary about saying goodbye to a film franchise that, to date, has earned $5.5bn and counting.
Ergo the cunning ruse of splitting this last instalment into two films. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Master Potter enters his final conflict with the odious Voldemort, but you the viewers will be left hanging off a cliff until next summer, when Deathly Hollows Part 2 is released.
Diluting a story's unity in this way is a risky move, and the strain shows in a sequel that's both longer and bleaker than a kid's fantasy film has any right to be. In the aftermath of Dumbledore's death at the end of the last instalment, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) have left Hogwarts and their childhoods behind to face their sternest challenge yet. Lord Voldemort's (Ralph Fiennes) power is gaining all the time, but the evil sorcerer knows that Harry is the only one powerful enough to stop him, so all his energies are now devoted to removing Potter from the equation.
One thing the makers of these films have always got right is their casting, and Bill Nighy makes an appearance in this episode as Rufus Scrimgeor, the new head of the Ministry of Magic, who arrives at the Weasley residence to read Albus Dumbledore's will to Harry. The will bequeaths a string of important gifts to Harry, Ron and Hermione, and also provides vital clues as to how they will locate the Horcruxes, a string of tiny but powerful sources of magic that will allow Voldemort to rule the world forever.
But as Harry and his friends set out to find the Horcruxes, Voldemort's Death Eaters are hot on their trail. With Dumbledore gone, the Ministry of Magic is overrun by Voldemort's stooges, and nothing stands between him and Harry but a group of staunchly loyal allies. These includes Hagrid the Giant (Robbie Coltrane), Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), Alastor 'Mad Eye' Moody (Brendan Gleeson) and Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) and, as the film opens, they resort to the tactic of disguising themselves as a series of Harry Potters in order to act as a diversion.
But Voldemort seems to be one step ahead of them, and in the end Ron, Harry and Hermione are left to fend for themselves.
Directed by Peter Yates, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 takes portentous gloom to new levels -- all the action takes place in either total darkness or impenetrable gloom, so that you exit the cinema gasping for sunlight. In stretching out JK Rowling's final Potter novel, screenwriter Steve Koves has reduced its hectic plot to a deathly crawl.
Once Harry and co go on the run, they fight with each other, raid the Ministry of Magic and have a bruising run-in with Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). And that's about it.
Remove the gloomy scene-setting and the film could have run a brisk 90 minutes: instead it clocks in at almost two-and-a-half hours -- and my God does it drag. In general, this film series has done a fine job of evoking Rowling's magical world, and the effects here are as impressive as ever. But it's all a little soulless, and also strangely lacking in wit, charm and spark.
The unavoidable absence of Professor Dumbledore -- he's dead -- leaves a gaping hole in the film's dramatic structure, and the disappearance of Hogwarts doesn't help either. I'd watch Fiennes in anything and, at the start of this movie, I hopefully imagined he'd be a major player. But, sadly, he remains peripheral. This leaves Radcliffe, Grint and Watson to carry the burden of the story, and Watson in particular does a good job in her biggest contribution yet.
Overall, The Deathly Hollows... is deadly dull, though the ending does promise a more action-packed finale. It better be -- or the mighty franchise will end with a whimper, not a bang.