(Editing courtesy of Manchester Confidential)
The familiar opening music begins but fades to nothing. The Warner Bros logo swings into view, tarnishes and rusts. There will be no frivolity in the halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry this term. There will be no Hogwarts at all as Lord Voldemort is back. But without the end of term - how on earth will he know when to attack?
The last one-but-one film begins with goodbyes. Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) destroys her parents’ memories of her while her love-interest Ronald Weasley (Rupert Grint) bids farewell to the comfort of his home, and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) watches his aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, leave him behind without so much as a backwards glance.
After an excellent but brief motorway broomstick chase with Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a quick smooch between Harry and Ginny and a crashed Weasley wedding, it’s time for the three young leads to leave the usual cast of adults behind them and go on the run from the Death Eaters.
But nowhere is safe, not even the non-magical Muggle world. With nothing but Hermione’s Mary Poppins-esque clutch bag of possessions (tent comes as standard), the three set off to complete the task that Hogwarts’ headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) left them before his death: to destroy the remaining Horcruxes that contain parts of Voldemort’s soul in order to make him mortal.
Their Horcrux-hunt leads them to the Ministry of Magic, where Dolores Umbridge (a terrifying Imelda Staunton) has the real version of the fake Horcrux. Unfortunately, the Ministry has been infiltrated and the Minister of Magic replaced by one of Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) own. Harry Potter is now undesirable number one and even Ministry members are being carted off so their blood can be tested for magical purity.
Following the genuinely tense climax of this outing, the film’s plot loses steam, with in-tent bickering between the three (it’s not the best idea to accessorise with a Horcrux), some useful evil-doer updates through the Volde-link via Harry and a few forays to other locations based on whim alone. This is the crux of the problem towards the latter end of JK Rowling’s much-loved series. The plot doesn’t so much as progress as jerk forwards at random intervals through a convenient leap of Hermione’s logic or timely bit of magic.
At least Voldemort is back so we know we’re out of filler territory. The decor in his HQ is so dark that three skeletons have moved into his cellar and a witch keeps tripping over her cat. There’s no getting away from it; Voldemort is evil. But just in case that’s not completely clear, within the first five minutes he kills a woman and orders his snake to eat her. Every Flavour Beans are evidently no longer the snack of choice for this franchise.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. For every ear being shot off with magic, there’s a scene like the one with seven Harry Potters (and Radcliffe in a bra), which is brilliantly light-hearted. Humour has been prevalent from the start of the Potter-verse thanks to Rowling. The wit shines through where its needed most in the films, dispelling tension and delivering a quick remark that makes you forgive even the most mawkish of scenes (Grint just can’t quite get away with the deeper stuff).
There’s no doubting that Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have matured as actors, which is lucky for third-time around director David Yates, and in the absence of the usual, excellent adult cast it’s up to them to carry the film. Steve Kloves has been writing the screen adaptations of Rowling’s franchise since book one and has taken these characters – and the actors – through to maturity. The fresh-faced tots from the first film are the adults now. Although, no matter how mature they might be, the naked scene was still a bit much to take (Voldemort, you old perv).
For someone who was once out-acted by a CGI talking snake, Radcliffe has established himself well as an actor. He’s fooled around with horses in the West End, gone yellow for The Simpsons and is soon to appear in the much anticipated horror The Woman in Black. It’s his comic timing, dry delivery and surprisingly subtle displays of emotion that help to make what is essentially half a film worth watching.
Being split into two does allow this film to linger over some beautiful moments – the Dementors leaching off the despair of court trials, Hermione and Harry’s oddly tender dance alone in the tent, an animated interlude – but also results in a less than satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t help that this final book suddenly introduced a whole other storyline – the Deathly Hallows – as if Rowling lost faith in the whole Horcrux thing, and is consequently a bit of a mishmash.
Relatively, it’s darker; the cast are alone in the world, one of them is tortured and familiar names are reeled off as missing over the crackling radio, but like its predecessors, this film finds it hard to strike the right balance for its ‘tween-age audience. There are deaths but the cast are still prone to exclaiming ‘blimey!’ in times of peril. Still, at least we’re out of rom-com territory – Potter is back on form for the final leg.