In a film rife with depictions of torture and genocide, the most haunting scene in the decidedly dark but tremendous Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (hereafter HPDH1) is a wordless, isolated moment during its opening sequence. Forced like her Hogwarts schoolmates to flee home in order to escape the encroaching forces of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) casts a spell on her unsuspecting parents that erases any memory of her, a process that also literally removes her image from the family portraits lining their mantelpiece.
This isn't your grade schooler's Harry Potter—no quidditch matches, classroom hijinks or school dances. Indeed, Hogwarts is never seen at all. Instead, the still-suffocating Potter mythology is mercifully co-opted by a story steeped in genuine human emotions: love, friendship, racism, loyalty, betrayal, etc. As Harry, Hermione and Ron (Daniel Radcliffe, Watson and Rupert Grint, respectively) have aged before our eyes, so too have the challenges facing them grown more treacherous.
With Harry's friends shielding the Chosen One from Voldemort's omnipotent pall, the dark lord's minions capture control over the Ministry of Magic and initiate their "Final Solution" to exterminate Muggles and any other non-pure-bloods. Wizards-in-waiting are now indoctrinated with such propaganda as "Mudbloods and The Dangers They Pose" and "When Muggles Attack," written and illustrated to resemble Julius Streicher's anti-Semitic Nazi invectives.
With the death of Harry's father-figure Dumbledore and minimal assistance from their dwindling adult mentors, it now falls to our core triumvirate to defeat Voldemort by gathering and destroying Horcruxes that sustain the villain's immortality. Also figuring into the equation are the so-called deathly hallows, which we learn about via an ancient fable director David Yates tells using a clever animation sequence.
In HPDH1, Harry, Hermione and Ron's task assumes an epic grandeur, more atmospheric, meditative and slower than previous installments. Accompanied by the plaintive refrains of composer Alexandre Desplat, they hopscotch from dungeons to Piccadilly Circus to endless sweeping vistas, battling not only Death Eaters but also their own hormonal angst. In particular, Yates brings to the surface Ron's festering resentment toward the more popular Harry as well as his insecurity over their respective relationships with Hermione.
The evening after Ron storms out on his friends, Harry and Hermione console each other with an impromptu slow dance set to "O Children" by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds—"Forgive us now for what we've done/ It started out as fun/ Here, take these before we run away/ The keys to the gulag." It's an affecting scene redolent of an art-house coming of age picture, much less a multimillion-dollar film sequel.
The darker, worldly themes in the last three Harry Potter films—the best of the bunch, and all directed Yates, not coincidentally—are unsurprising once you realize they are adapted from the only books J.K. Rowling wrote post-9/11. Moreover, the first hour of HPDH1 is the most provocative in the entire film series, although that does amplify the monotony that takes root during the film's second half as Yates applies the narrative brakes in preparation for Part 2's finale next July.
Still, even if the battles for Hogwarts and Harry's soul have yet to be fought, the merit of the once vapid Harry Potter films has finally been established. Luckily, they saved the best for last.