Fifteen years, six films and a stack of cash large enough to buy Gringotts have all passed since some fool chucked Joanne Rowling out of a publishing office, telling her that she’d “never make any money out of children’s books”.
After all the Harry hubbub, this is the beginning of the end for us Muggles, but if things are looking bleak for Potter’s legion of fans, they look a lot worse for the young wizard and his pals. Like Half-Blood Prince, part one of the finale bears the hallmarks of a warm-up act. After all the backstory we just want to see Hogwarts turned into something from Saving Private Ryan (and apparently we will in due course), but there are hallows and horcruxes to sort out before we get our magical money-shot. This first instalment is primarily a road movie and breaks every Potter convention, including the old “darkest one yet” mantra. Most of the edgy material seems to have been left on the cutting room floor.
We were getting a bit bored of finding Harry at the Dursley’s each summer before he headed off to Hogwarts within 20 minutes, his head filled with some trivial dilemma, so it was a pleasure to literally cut to the chase during the opening stages. The chase in question was a splendid mad dash to get our kid to safety, yet the necessary split of the book means that these fine early sequences were probably the strongest of the film. Watching Hagrid and the Harry cause yet more carnage on the M25 as they eluded Voldemort was as epic as anything the series has yet produced and the Dark Lord’s opening gambit at Malfoy Manor gave hope that he would not be edited from the story in the way he was during what should have been his monument last year. Sadly this was not the case and Ralph Fiennes was consigned to a handful of quick-fire dream sequences rather than any meaningful content. Fitting the novel into even two films was always going to be a tricky job, but we were left with the feeling that, once again, David Yates had got the balance wrong.
There is enough action in this section of the book to keep the story rollicking along nicely, but Harry and Hermione’s encounter with Nagini at Godric’s Hollow is skated over rapidly to make way for a mystifying dance sequence between the pair, which will leave even David Brent curling his toes in embarassment. Apparently Rowling is consulted before any alterations are made to the story, but she must have been concentrating on her latest wizarding compendium when they sugested this one. And much as I like the bloke, Daniel Radcliffe’s talent for playing Harry seems to deteriorate like an elderley person’s driving as the years go by. Despite a breathtaking performance at this week’s premiere, Emma Watson is also off-key, so thank Dumbledore for Rupert Grint and the under-used Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the unhinged Bellatrix Lestrange deliciously.
Yet for all these imperfections, there is still plenty to please Potterers here. We get a good look at the Ministry of Magic (Umbridge is back and she doesn’t seem too bothered who her boss is, so long as she can act like a wizarding Joseph Goebbels). Dobby puts in a show-stealing shift as the crew’s tragic saviour and Rhys Ifans’ re-imagining of The Tale of the Three Brothers is both unexpected and refreshing. But the film does sag somewhat under the weight of an uncondensed plot – a problem next year’s climax should escape easily. Such are the difficulties of making a double-handed adaptation. Peter Jackson take note..