Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) is the first film in the series not to be based on a full novel. It is instead rigorously adapted from roughly the first three-fifths of J.K. Rowling’s final tome. Both the studio and filmmakers took heat when they announced that the book would be split into two movies. To categorize this decision as anything other than a ploy to generate more revenues would be difficult; suffice to say that it was perhaps inevitable for reasons of storytelling, as well. For starters, Rowling’s exposition-heavy approach in the later novels veers on exhausting. This, coupled with the strict established approach of Steve Kloves’ adaptations, dictated that the film follow the novel closely and all but demanded that the adaptation be cut down the middle. Given the circumstances, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 inescapably feels truncated. As such, it lacks concrete structure and is more episodic than other installments. These might be considered flaws if we’re measuring by a certain standard. But as an experiment in stuttering and disrupting the narrative flow established and honored over the six previous entries, the movie is a curiously compelling beast.
Narrative structure is one of the steadiest elements of the Potter films. Each tale picks up at the end of the summer with Harry and company preparing to return to Hogwarts. After some rudimentary setup they arrive at school, where the story generally stays put. Here, Hogwarts has no presence. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) dodge their final year to journey across Britain in pursuit of horcruxes that hold pieces of Voldemort’s soul. The urgency to find the horcruxes is counteracted by the trio’s lack of leads as to how to acquire them. Throughout their journey, Harry, Ron and Hermione return to places they have visited in films past—such as the Weasley home and the Ministry of Magic—before ending up in the wilderness, away from most of civilization but not from danger.
One of the more arresting elements here is the manner in which Harry, Ron and Hermione bounce from location to location by apparating (which is a fancy word for simply disappearing in one location and arriving in another). The asperity of these transitions interrupts the rhythm of a scene or a particular section of the film. We are left feeling as though we can never trust the surroundings, no matter how quiet or desolate they may be. Moreover, these apparations made me hyperaware to details of a given locale than I would have been otherwise. Two transitions stand out: The first occurs during the dangerous escape from the Ministry of Magic, where director David Yates cuts to a Malick-esque shot of swaying treetops from the ground up. The second is when Harry and Hermione depart a rocky area on a cliff and arrive in a small village where the snow absorbs all sound.
The abruptness and unpredictability of so many sequences is a running motif in the film. Despite extensive stretches of quiet, Yates rarely allows a single scene or moment to last very long. Some sequences even seem to emulate Peter Jackson’s penultimate Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King, by cutting across various locations to show different events and characters that will soon clash. This approach starkly contrasts with the last film, Half-Blood Prince, arguably the most deliberate of the episodes. With Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Yates never allows you to feel at ease despite the fleeting comfort afforded by returning faces and occasional nostalgia for a less threatening time.
The mix of comfort, anxiety and urgency is evident in the sprawling opening title sequence, which cuts between the three characters in their respective homes. Ron gazes to the horizon with his family buzzing about in the house behind him while Harry looks from his bedroom as the Dursleys prepare to permanently vacate their home. The portrait of Hermione is significantly more affecting, as she casts a spell on her parents to wipe away their memories of her. The memory-wipe scene moreover establishes Hermione, rather than Harry, as the emotional focus of the film. From the standpoint of narrative Harry is of course still the most visible of the three, but most of the events filter directly through Hermione. This might seem like a risky move if you consider that in the near-decade long history of the series, Emma Watson has been the weakest link among the three actors. Her unremitting brow and jaw movements have likely caused more than a few viewers to cringe at various points during the previous six films. But in Deathly Hallows: Part 1 Watson is luminous as the anchor of the group. She creates a mature portrait of anguish that cuts through Ron and Harry’s brooding states. And in one single instance, Watson propels the film to places no other installment in the series has gone. The moment is awkward at first. Harry’s impromptu invitation to dance takes her by surprise, but she reservedly accepts. As Nick Cave’s “O Children” becomes clearer on the soundtrack, the two share a moment that is joyous yet devastating. Through a range of movements and expressions Watson garners the most emotionally vulnerable sequence in the series. And keeping with the film’s tone of abrupt comings and goings, it halts swiftly. Harry and Hermione simply remain in the room as the space between them is once again blanketed in the sorrow they temporarily escaped.
Another unexpectedly moving sequence is the death of a relatively minor character. In fact, of all of the deaths that have occurred in the films so far, the demise of Dobby the elf has the most weight. This is unusual considering that the deaths of Sirius Black and Dumbledore are more personally meaningful to Harry and more important to the story. But the sight of a cradled Dobby becoming still in Harry’s arms is one of the great images in all the Potter films.
Deathly Hallows: Part 1 tests the mettle of any Potter fan with 147 minutes of dense exposition and disconnected moments. It plainly wears many of the weaker elements of the series, such as its preponderance of explanations and paucity of narrative information. But its lack of structure and abrupt shifts give it a unique quality that is a welcome in the series before it bows to the battle-heavy action of the last film. More importantly, there are some unexpectedly moving moments that speak to the resonance of the broader narrative. Such instances make the film more than the sum of its parts. The story can go from meandering exposition to unbridled emotion with the same speed as its characters can apparate from place to place. Spun at a rapid pace but also slow-brewing, building momentously yet abounding in quiet moments, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is an amalgam of the various elements and styles, strengths and weaknesses that have characterized the series.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art.