When the Harry Potter books were adapted for film, we had no idea what to expect.
Books had been made into movies before, but never a series on this scale. A series unfinished, so dependent on technical wizardry, and with a cast that would implicitly go from children to adults before our very eyes. We did not know how the films would transition from one director to another, or if they even would. We didn’t know how the tone would shift from books one to seven, that we could split books into two movies, or which books would make for better films.
A decade later and with another tepid half-franchise in the mix, let’s call it: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 is the best Harry Potter movie.
Nov. 19 marked the 10-year anniversary of this movie, which makes it a great time to revisit what makes Deathly Hallows – Part 1 so fantastic. A less knowledgeable scholar of the Potter film franchise might recall Deathly Hallows – Part 1 as “the one with the camping,” which is extremely unfair because camping comprises roughly 23 percent of the movie’s 146-minute runtime — but we’ll get back to that.
The film opens with a montage of Harry, Ron, and Hermione preparing essentially to go to war.
In the Deathly Hallows novel, we begin — as we often do — with Harry, but hear about Hermione’s monumental sacrifice later on. The film plunges us in headfirst, declaring that this is a story of children bearing unimaginable burdens, and that Harry is not the only one to lose his loved ones to this war. The magical whimsy of “Hedwig’s Theme” is nowhere to be found.
Of course, Deathly Hallows – Part 1 finds itself in the position of being able to take such creative leaps because of the six films before it. It draws on the gloom of Half-Blood Prince and the adrenaline of Order of the Phoenix and Goblet of Fire. Prisoner of Azkaban set a new bar for what the films could be visually. All of this is owed, as ever, to Chris Columbus’s monumental work on the first two films, establishing an entire world of characters, creatures and effects that immerses us wholly to this day.
But those were kids’ movies.
After a woman is eaten by a snake at one of Voldemort’s work meetings, the film’s first act jumps between moments of brief joy, respite, and humor, amidst a growing cloud of gloom and doom. It’s eerily understandable a decade later, with the world in its current state, how Harry attends a wedding and kisses his crush but also confronts corrupt leadership and plans his mission.
One of my few critiques of this movie is the omission of Kreacher’s tale: How Voldemort used the Black family’s house elf to ensure the safety of his horcrux and how Sirius’s brother perished in the quest to retrieve and destroy it.
Even his Order of the Phoenix cameo is not meant to set him up as a spy for Death Eaters, as he is in the book. It’s seemingly there so we can return to him in Deathly Hallows, but he still doesn’t get his due.
After infiltrating the Ministry — something the trio spent months planning in the book, and which is inexplicably played off as a spontaneous shenanigan in the movie — we get to the Camping, roughly a half hour that includes Ron’s gruesome splinching injury, his heartbreaking departure, Harry and Hermione’s dance (a lovely moment between friends, we’ll take no questions), the trip to Godric’s Hollow where a snake is walking around in the skin of a dead woman, the mysterious silver doe, Ron saving Harry from being drowned in a frozen lake by a horcrux, and the eventual destruction of that horcrux.
Call it camping again, I f*cking dare you.
And THEN, with the trio reunited, we visit Xenophilius Lovegood and learn about the Deathly Hallows in one of the most mesmerizing scenes in any of these movies: The Tale of the Three Brothers. This scene and animator Ben Hibon did not have to go that hard, but they did, and the result is breathtaking:
Time and time again, Deathly Hallows – Part 1 skillfully shuttles us between vastly different moods.
Xenophilius’s scene (chewed to within an inch of its life by Rhys Ifans) feels straight out of a spy movie until the tension cracks with the Snatchers’ arrival.
The chase through the woods doesn’t even feel like a Harry Potter movie. The camera is always moving, either steady or handheld, which the series does rarely if ever (another memorable sequence being the Burrow burning in Half-Blood Prince). The music takes a backseat to the chaos of sprinting and destructive spellwork. It’s barely a minute, but it’s harrowing every time.
The Malfoy Manor climax is oddly sentimental. Harry Potter became a who’s who of British acting talent, but the combination of Jason Isaacs, Helena Bonham Carter, and Helen McCrory is magnificent (I would also like to acknowledge Timothy Spall while NOT acknowledging the absolute disgrace of how Wormtail’s plot line was handled).
There’s the added layer of Dan Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and Tom Felton, who have grown into their own since 2001 and remind viewers of their own school days and simpler times at Hogwarts. Add in Evanna Lynch as Luna, John Hurt as the wandmaker Ollivander, and an iconic return from Dobby, and you have a sequence laced with nostalgia for Potter itself while leading us directly to our final showdown.
It hits critical emotional beats with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, with the lingering loss of Dumbledore, with Harry visiting his childhood home and parents’ graves, and with the specter of more death on the horizon, even if those deaths don’t come until Part 2. It’s packed with excellent performances, dazzling visuals, and a soundtrack that just won’t quit.
You can keep your nostalgia for the early films, your dismissal of plot holes in the middle movies, your sentiment for Deathly Hallows – Part 2. Part 1 is the best, and it had no right to be. If anyone needs me, I’ll be camping.
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