David Yates continues his plodding, faithful, uninspired direction of the Harry Potter series with the first half of the final book. After ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and HALF-BLOOD PRINCE we should've known what to expect - a workmanlike film adaptation of the novel, with neither the gothic style of Alfonso Cuaron's AZKABAN, nor the ability to portray emotion without mawkishness from Mike Newell's GOBLET OF FIRE. In David Yates hands, this franchise has become a dreary endurance test for anyone other than hard-core Potter fans - descending from the banality of the last installment to unwatchable boredom interspersed with cringe-worthy emotional scenes in this film. I'd blame screenwriter Steve Kloves too, but somehow I can't imagine that these emotional mis-steps can really be the fault of the man who, in a happier earlier career, penned WONDER BOYS.
The upshot is that HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 is unwatchable - dull, badly acted, ploddingly paced, full of failed attempts to tug at our heartstrings and basically a complete waste of time. The producers should have had the balls to condense the admittedly baggy source-text into just one film, cutting out scenes where the teenagers sit and brood and focusing on the destruction of the horcruxes. Because this film basically reads as two and a half hours of prologue. I left the cinema thinking, "Is this it?" and worst of all, "Dear God, if Guillermo del Toro wanted to direct this, why on earth didn't they let him?!"
In fairness, it must be hard to inject these films with suspense and emotional shocks - after all, most of us have read the books. Indeed, I am lucky enough that having read them on release, and forgotten most of the detail in the interim, I was more likely to be drawn into the plotting than true fans. As the movie opens another year is beginning at Hogwarts but Harry, Ron and Hermione aren't going back to the happy, colourful adventures of the early films. The world has changed - fascist goons fill the Ministry of Magic; Dolores Umbridge has installed Snape as headmaster of Hogwarts; and there are dark rumblings about registering all muggles. The tone of the film is established - it will be dark, cool-coloured, cold, and full of mis-trust and peril. The film opens and closes with the death of a trusted character and the death of minor characters litters the film throughout.
As the movie opens Harry is being transported by convoy from the Dursley's house, where he has spent the summer, to a safe house run by the Weasleys. The friends are betrayed and Harry, Ron and Hermione set off to destroy the horcruxes that contain Voldemort's soul. Problem is, they don't know where the horcruxes are, or even how to destroy them. And in carting the horcrux around, it fouls their temple, Ring-style. As the film progresses the kids find the sword of Griffindor; discover that Dumbledore had a brother; and that a kid called Grindelwald has been nicking stuff from Bellatrix Lestrange's bank-vault. But we don't really get much further along in understanding the bigger picture of what is actually happening. The plot of the film is thus made up of long periods where the teens sit and brood, inactive, and short spurts of danger where they find, or destroy a horcrux or escape the clutches of Death Eaters. By the end of the film, you are no clearer as to key characters' motivations than at the start.
I was so bored by the inaction, or numbed by the CGI fuelled action, that I started to contemplate the logical holes in the plot. Harry is in such danger his friends have to put him in hiding. And yet he can walk through the Ministry of Magic for a good few minutes before any of the fascist goons recognise him! And, even before that, Harry's friends risk his life to transport him to safety. Why don't they just apparate him to the safe-house? And why didn't Ron, Hermione and Harry just apparate out of the Ministry of Magic once they found the horcrux? After all, apparating is used to get them out of plenty of holes later on in the film - unless the director feels we need a good chase scene. And if apparating has been used too much, they can use the convenient fiction of the house-elf, who can apparently go where he pleases and find what he wants. If it's so easy for Creature and Dobby to locate Mundungus and bring him to Harry, why don't the kids ask them to find the Horcruxes and sit back and relax? Now I know that's just ridiculous, but by using these deus ex machina so often, J K Rowling damages our belief in the rules of her universe and makes everything possible and nothing meaningful.
So, is this film worth seeing? No, not unless you're a mega-fan. The only things that really work as cinema are a beautifully animated sequence telling the tale of the Three Brothers, made by Ben Hibon; and the character Dobby the House-Elf, voiced by Toby Jones, who alone delivers lines that are genuinely funny and genuinely moving. Together these two factors make up perhaps twenty minutes of screen time leaving two hours of dross. Low-lights include a scene where Harry tries to cheer Hermione up by making her dance - the actors looked as embarrassed as the audience - and a gauche scene where Ron imagines Harry and Hermione kissing.
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 is on global release in all bar France, Switzerland and South Africa where it opens next week and Hong Kong and South Korea where it opens on December 16th.