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Film review: "Deathly Hallows Part 1"

Daniel Radcliffe poses as he arrives for the world premiere of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" at Leicester Square in London November 11, 2010. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The long goodbye for the most successful film series of the century thus far begins with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1,” the darkest and least characteristic of the batch. Gone are Hogwarts and the sense of security that went with it, gone is any of the joy of youth, gone is more than just a measure or two of John Williams’ original music. With Harry, Ron and Hermione left largely to their own devices on often forbidding terrain, this grim beginning-of-the-end odyssey has a very different feel from any of its predecessors -- a development slightly more disconcerting than it is welcome. That this holiday release will be a huge international attraction is beyond question, even if the real fireworks mostly await the finale’s second installment, which arrives July 15.

Perhaps the most pertinent question surrounding the way in which J.K. Rowling’s exceptionally intricate epic is being concluded onscreen is whether dividing the final book into two films was justified artistically or only financially. After all, the longest volume in the series, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” became the shortest film, and parts of the long midsection of “Deathly Hallows”-- when the kids sulk in the wild, not knowing what to do next -- easily could have been abridged.

More than even the most faithful of the earlier episodes, this film feels devoted above all to reproducing the novel onscreen as closely as possible, an impulse that drags it toward ponderousness at times and rather sorely tests the abilities of the young actors to hold the screen entirely on their own, without being propped up by the ever-fabulous array of character actors the series offers.

Arguing in favor of the extensive treatment is the fact that in “Deathly Hallows,” screenwriter Steve Kloves must pull together multiple story strands and dozens of characters that, as especially will be the case in “Part 2,” date back to the series’ prepubescent days. To cram the essentials covered in “Part 1” and to do justice to the climaxes that await would represent a very tall order for a single conventional-length film. So it seems reasonable enough to say why not do it all, shoot the works, show every scene millions of readers want to see, give every character his or her proper curtain call, be expansive rather than constrained? In this case, probably better a bit too much -- even a dull scene here and there -- than not enough.

“Deathly Hallows” opens boldly. “These are dark times, there’s no denying,” intones Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy, just now joining the series) in intense close-up, acknowledging the fact that archvillian Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his Death Eaters, having dispatched Dumbledore at the end of the previous installment, are on the verge of a complete takeover. For his part, Voldemort has gathered his minions to stress that it falls to him and no one else to kill Harry Potter, who must be hunted down at once.

Knowing his peril, Harry moves his immediate family (providing brief encores for Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw and Harry Melling) out of Privet Drive. But, sensing danger, Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson, fun to have back) insists upon replicating Harry sevenfold so that the Death Eaters won’t know which is the real one when they come after him -- which they promptly do in a spectacular nocturnal airborne chase that ends up at the Weasleys’ isolated home for a furtive wedding.

As anyone who has followed the yarn in print or onscreen will know, Harry’s only hope of stopping Voldemort lies in his finding and destroying the Horcruxes that represent portions of the Dark Lord’s pestilential soul. Inscrutable clues have been left behind by Dumbledore, but an encounter with former house elves Kreacher and Dobby -- themselves not seen in some time -- reveals that one Horcrux is in the possession of the students’ former tormenter, the pint-sized lady in pink, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton).

The film’s most engaging sustained interlude involves the kids’ risky visit to the Ministry of Magic, where Umbridge works as a judge now that the goon squad has taken over. Transforming themselves physically into the bodies of minor wizards, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) sneak about in a bureaucracy strewn with posters branding Harry “Undesirable #1” and so rife with threat and fear that Dr. Goebbels himself would have approved.