"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I"

As with each of the previous “Harry Potter” films, I find myself having difficulty finding the proper words for my review. Oh, how I love the Harry Potter universe, both in book and film form. In fact, I would go so far as to say I love it more than any other realm (real or fictitious) that doesn’t involve wookiees or a galaxy far, far away. That fact combined with my propensity for hyperbole makes it nearly impossible to deliver to you, dear readers, a fair and unbiased review. Allow me my moment of wizard-oriented nerdiness and I promise to return to my standard formula next time around.

“Deathly Hallows” drops us rather firmly back into the Harry Potter world, a world that is at war. Having struck a critical blow to their enemies at the end of the preceding film, uber-baddie Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) force of dark wizards grows ever stronger. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), soon find themselves on the run, half hiding, half searching for horcruxs, magical items that allow Voldemort to remain virtually invincible. Meanwhile, Voldemort himself is searching for a set of magical items called the Deathly Hallows which would slant the balance of power even further toward him in his inevitable and final battle with Harry. There is no conclusion to the drama, however, as this is mostly a set up for the ultimate fight that is to come in part two of this film.

I have thought long and hard about this film since taking it in at midnight on opening day. (Nerd, I know.) I have tried to find holes in the finished product and to temper my enthusiasm but truthfully I think any issue a fan of these stories might have would be nitpicking at best. “Deathly Hallows” is, for my money, the best yet in a series of films that has brought me an enormous amount of enjoyment. Every aspect of this film is refined, as if producer David Heyman, director David Yates, and the rest have taken what is great about the first six installments and improved what was lacking.

In no area is this better highlighted than in the display of legitimate skill of the three lead actors. Even in the 2001 debut of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” you could tell Daniel Radcliffe had “it.” Allowing for the fact that he was, after all, an inexperienced child actor, I always felt he would end up being a capable actor if not more. Rupert Grint was somewhere below Radcliffe on the “bankable skill” chart but still, I felt fairly confident in his ability to act when it was all said and done. I had no such confidence, however, in Watson. While far from a bad child actor (see: Jake Lloyd), Watson was easily the leader in wince inducing moments among the trio. As the films progressed, so, too, the maturity and range of these three young stars but Watson still lagged behind the others. Well, no more. Much of the material and subject matter of “Deathly Hallows” requires strong, hardened performances from these actors and all three deliver time and time again. Watson holds her own in a way she never has before, truly illustrating the time and effort that has been put into this series from the very beginning. Though, if you spend 10 years hanging out with a cast that includes Gary Oldman, Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, and the rest of these outstanding actors, you’re bound to up your game.

“Deathly Hallows” also excels in bringing some of the, well, magic of the books back to the screen. As the films have gotten longer and more involved in the maturation and development of the characters (and their relationships), I’ve felt that some of the wonderment of the first few films has been lost. As a tremendous fan of J.K. Rowling’s books, part of the joy of these movies has been the personification of so many wonderful and inventive pieces of fantasy brought to life. That magic is somewhat buried beneath layers of story and drama (and rightly so) in the last two chapters of this series but is wholly recaptured here. Telling the story of the “Deathly Hallows” (a well-known fairytale in this world) through the use of animated shadow theater was an especially nice touch. The spirit of the book, both the ups and the tremendous downs, is gloriously encapsulated in this film and reminded me of why I fell in love with this story in the first place.

The end result is an engrossing, brilliant adaptation that does nothing if not whet the appetite of the viewer for the next and final installment. Breaking up the book into two parts is clearly the right way to go as it allows for a pace that the last few films just weren’t allowed to find. In fact, I was left to wonder how much better these already-strong films could have been if they’d been given the Peter Jackson treatment with an extended cut for DVD/blu-ray. Regardless, it’s a magnificent ride and leaves me hopeful that the last chapter will be the best one of the bunch.

Grade: A

I will now resume my traditional cynical and sarcastic nature,