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Warning: contains many many spoilers.

Few critics have been kind to the Harry Potter franchise. The early entries – cosy, Christmas-afternoon affairs – were dismissed as mere family fare, stock characters writ large against a backdrop of rudimentary CGI and English RADA alumni. Interest piqued at Alfonso Cuaron’s involvement with 2004’s Prisoner of Azkaban, but the shift signalled by his film’s darkening themes and heightened drama has never really been accepted by the press, keen to keep the series safely consigned to the ‘family film’ pigeonhole.

“Once again the emphasis is on that most over-rated and under-understood concept: dark” said The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw disparagingly of the fifth installment, neatly voicing the attitude of many critics (and particularly those of the newspapers) seemingly affronted by the bleaker palette and 12a ratings of the post-Christopher Columbus offerings. Others cling, increasingly desperately, to their fixed idea that the only correct audience for Potter has yet to obtain a National Insurance card, and that anyone else furtively occupying a seat in a screening should be on a register somewhere. “You know it’s for kids, right?” sneered one poster this week. Well, so was Batman. And video games. Presumably you don’t watch any Pixar films either, because they’re, well, cartoons.

“I have nothing to say about the Harry Potter books and films as I haven’t read or seen either of them” offered another heroically anonymous contributor, underneath a pretty lengthy discussion of a film he professes to have no interest in. But you know what? Their loss, frankly. Because from Cuaron’s desaturated interpretation onwards there’s been a heck of a lot to like about these films, and with the first part of the Deathly Hallows there’s a fair bit to love too.

It opens with uncharacteristic understatement, Hermione and Harry overseeing the ending of their familiar lives. As Hermione’s image – and hence her parents’ memory of her – fades from picture-frames and the Dursleys’ drive away there’s none of the usual humour that introduces each installment, the pitiless excoriation of the banality of modern living that the brief scenes with Potter’s relatives has always provided. There’s little dialogue either, the cross-cut scenes more Mike Leigh than Michael Bay as Hermione closes the door on her childhood home and heads into a lonely, colourless suburbia. Even the title sequence lacks the familiar theme, the silence by now – and particularly for the many, many children sat clad in Griffindor scarves – pretty oppressive.

Restraint isn’t a notion usually associated with blockbusters. We pay our money, buy our popcorn and expect two hours where we don’t have to think, where there’s no room amidst the explosions and the heterosexual romance for our minds to wander or for us to become too aware of our numbing limbs. But this is a surprisingly restrained film, its best moments not the chase scene over Dartford nor the numerous Death Eater attacks, its best scenes focused not around the three leads but upon, most unexpectedly, the Malfoys. Their presence bookends the film, a duplicate zoom into their country estate introducing the Deathly Hallows’ two key dramatic sequences, both highlighting the Malfoy family’s growing discomfort with the new world order that they’ve helped to bring about.

The first is a masterclass in menace, black-clad figures seated around a black table in a black room as a terrified Hogwarts professor rotates slowly above, her eyes pleading. Voldemort gets more dialogue here than in the previous films combined, Ralph Fiennes’ performance no longer blighted with hints of pantomime excess but nuanced and guarded and all the more effective for it, as he strafes the room for a wand to replace his own. It’s impossible not to feel for Lucius as it’s taken from him, the camera focused upon his unseeing eyes as Voldemort humiliates him in his own home. Draco’s horror is palpable as his former teacher is killed before him, her body crashing to the table to become dinner for the snake Nagini. More even than the protagonists it’s the Malfoys that we feel for, trapped now within an impossible situation: Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix might be the poster girl for the film’s evil but the Malfoys are its shadow, squirming from the source and fraying at the edges.

Most commentators have pointed out the road-movie nature of the narrative here, and it’s certainly true that the film benefits from getting away from Hogwarts. The variety of locations here is excellent, and a UK tourism office’s dream, as a cut-off and desperate Potter, Granger and Weasley travel from central London streets to snowy cliff-edges, their campsites ranging from lonely cooling towers to the Humber Bridge. Unlike the book there’s little sag here, a constant tension and frequent near-misses underpinning their hopeless meanderings. Fears that the three leads would be unable to carry the second act by themselves – previous Potters have had an omnipresent background of more tested thespians to distract from the younger actors’ limitations – are ultimately unfounded: they’re each more than adequate, and – amazingly – Rupert Grint most of all, being primarily responsible for the few comic moments that the scenes allow. An awkward and tonally-jarring dance sequence between Potter and Hermione is probably a misstep, but otherwise there’s little to complain about with their performances.

Dobby is another matter. Pinning the primary emotional moments of the narrative upon a computer-generated character is incredibly unwise, and for all the advancements here the elf just doesn’t look right. His voice is wrong, too – too cartoonesque for this world, he belongs back in the matinee offerings of The Chamber of Secrets, where simple characters and crass emotional manipulation was to be expected, not resented.

But there really is little to fault here. Visually the film is absolutely astounding, and despite the muted colour scheme cinematographer Eduardo Serra gives every frame vigor and life. The standout sequence is the tale of the three brothers, rendered through animated shadow puppets in a similar vein to the introduction to Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy sequel, and it’s superb, award-worthy stuff. The many set-pieces – broomstick battles, the wedding-crash, the infiltration of the fascistic Ministry – are impeccably-realised, the latter’s courtroom escape particularly so. Elves aside, the visual effects here are exceptional, and should not be overlooked by Oscar next Spring.

The plot suffers from the same surfeit of narrative as the book – namely the conflicting focuses upon the Hallows and the Horcruxes – but the detail’s actually kept pretty manageable here, and it’s unlikely to overly confuse anyone unfamiliar with Rowling’s text. And for the fans there’s less frustration than with previous adaptations: David Yates’ decision to split the story into two was a wise one, and there’s far less missing than we’ve come to expect. Indeed, it’s actually remarkably faithful, but whether that’s a strength or not depends on how far you’re prepared to be immersed in this world.

Personally I’d take any extent of director’s cut, but even critics would be hard-pressed to find much here to excise. And by the closing scenes, as Voldemort holds the Elder Wand aloft to a Scottish sky rent apart with lightning, there’s few who wouldn’t opt for more. But that’s next summer, past a freezing winter, an even colder economic paring and an interminable build up to a royal wedding. Potter’s world seems safer, somehow, and the darkness welcoming.

Christian Cottingham

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