Before the Final Battle

    Harry Potter” has always flirted with darkness. Sure, we get a good Quidditch match and a couple of love triangles to break up the orphaned teen hero angst, but the series always manages to kill off a father figure or two at the end of every 700 pages. For the penultimate film, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1,” even the smallest remnants of whimsy are left behind at Hogwarts with the Fat Lady, as our heroic trio ditches school and carves through the real world, encountering despair that can’t be fixed through extra points to Gryffindor.

    The old charms of Harry’s first year — a talking hat, flying brooms, moving portraits — have become more and more at odds with the series’ increasingly foreboding tone. With “Deathly Hallows,” however, third-time Potter director David Yates has finally settled with gloom, lending the film some much-needed consistency.

    The first of a two-part finale, “Deathly Hallows” is essentially a race between good and evil — a simple plot device, yes, but only on paper. With a smorgasbord of extraneous details, don’t expect much in the way of clarity. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and pals Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) set out to destroy Voldemort’s (a chilling Ralph Fiennes) Horcruxes (hor-what?). Meanwhile, the Dark Lord is on a hunt of his own, searching for the Deathly Hallows — a trio of magical objects that make its owner the master of death — as the kids begin to catch up, step by painfully slow step.

    Yet the 146-minute running time doesn’t feel longer than the usual Potter flick, since the director makes a tangible effort not to get too bogged down by the books’ plot-heavy details. It’s really a film for the die-hards: Yates doesn’t spell anything out for you (we’re never even given a refresher on what those pesky Horcruxes are again). But while you may need encyclopedic knowledge of the series to follow the intrigue, if you’ve been a Potter scholar all your life, the trip will be engrossing from the start.

    As director, Yates is competent enough — since “Order of the Phoenix,” his dialogue-heavy scenes have been stronger than his action sequences, which are passable but conventional. Because Harry and the crew spend most of this movie camping out, hiding from Voldemort’s Gestapo-esque “Snatchers” and talking about Horcruxes and their feelings, it finally feels like Yates is in his element. The action comes in brief bursts, punctuating the lengthier moments of picturesque emptiness that fill the majority of the movie — a style not unlike last year’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”

    “Deathly Hallows” indebts itself a lot more to such post-apocalyptic tales than the usual fantasy, with much of the magic replaced by sparse, dystopian scenery. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra (“Girl With a Pearl Earring”) scopes out more forlorn mountains, snowy pastures and somber forests than you thought possible in a Potter flick. In these pretty scenes, pretty actors do pretty acting — staring off into space, crying and getting fed up with each other.

    The actors handle the melodrama with effective gusto. We’ve seen the trio grow up from wooden kid-actors to nuanced performers. “Part 2” will certainly belong to (or be destroyed by) Daniel Radcliffe, but here Rupert Grint finally gets to shine. Grint’s believably jealous Ron provides the film’s most relatable story arc as he faces his demons, both literal and figurative, and — wait for it — a naked makeout sesh from Harry and Hermione (in a nightmare, of course).

    The fabulous set of British character actors that play the adults — with the new addition of Billy Nighy as Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour — are regrettably underused, save for Fiennes, whose terrifying Voldemort gets more screen time than ever before. But that comes with the territory of this particular half of the source material. For now, the focus is entirely on the teen runaways.

    It’s the little things that make it an interesting film and not just another rough adaptation like the first few films of the series. The score by Alexandre Desplat is exciting, subtle and emotional, and a beautifully rendered animated sequence (supervised by Ben Hibon) that tells the story of the Deathly Hallows shows some splendid creativity you wish they would have discovered earlier.

    “Deathly Hallows” is one of the best films in the Potter series; its biggest drawback really lies in its two-part nature. It spends so long building up the momentum for a finale, though it can’t deliver until “Part 2” comes out next July. What we’re left with is a respectfully made, though unsurprising, dark mystery that gives us all the clues but no way to piece them together. (B+)

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