Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 (PG-13) ★★★

Review Date: January 7th, 2011

Perhaps Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows should have been a trilogy. Splitting the sprawling finale to author J.K. Rowling's boy wizard saga into three parts — as opposed to its chosen two-part incarnation — might have come across as shameless profiteering (admittedly, a not-uncommon practice in this town), but it wouldn't have been without merit. At 759 pages, Rowling's source novel is said to be a rather dense work, plot-wise; surely it could have easily warranted another installment?

I only say this because Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, though certainly a decent film, clearly strains from the effort required to fit the book's proceedings into a two-act structure. While Part 2, slated to open approximately six months from now, is alotted the story's meaty parts — namely, the spectacular Battle of Hogwarts and its emotional denouement — Part 1 must bear the burden of setting the stage for the grand confrontation between the forces of Light and Dark magic and framing the predicament of its three protagonists, teen wizards Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), in suitably dire terms. And it's quite a heavy burden indeed.

As the film opens, the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), having assumed control over Hogwarts since the events of the preceding film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, has wasted no time in initiating his reign of terror. As far as historical evil-dictator analogues are concerned, Voldemort appears partial to the blueprint laid by Stalin as opposed to that of his genocidal pact-pal, Hitler. Enemies of the Dark Lord's regime are prosecuted in dramatic show trials, presided over by the Grand Inquisitor, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), while muggles (non-magic folk) and half-bloods are denounced as ''undesirables'' and "mudbloods" in Soviet-style propaganda posters and forced to register with the authorities.

As the only viable threat to Voldemort's dominion, Harry and his allies are hunted vigorously by Bellatrix LeStrange (Helena Bonham Carter), and her goon squad of Death Eaters. The Boy Who Lived, now fully grown and in more or less complete command of his powers, is still no match England's nasally scourge. Labeled ''Undesirable No. 1'' by the Gestapo-like Ministry of Magic, he's is forced to go on the lam, where he labors, along with Ron and Hermione, to solve the riddle of Voldemort's immortality.

For those not well-versed in Rowling's source material, the film's opening act is a frustrating blur: After an all-too-brisk update on the bleak state of affairs in Hogwarts, we are hastily introduced (or re-introduced) to a dozen or so characters, the majority of whom are never seen again. A few even perish off-screen. Had we gotten a chance to get to know them, we might be able to mourn them as our heroes do; instead, we're left racking our brains trying to recall who they were, and how they figured in the plot.

Rowling's flaws as a storyteller — the over-reliance on deus ex machina devices (in this case, we get both a doe ex machina and a Dobby ex machina), the ponderous downloads of information (not unlike those of that other uber-anticipated and somewhat overrated 2010 tentpole, Inception), the annoying ability of characters to simply teleport (or ''disapparate'') away from danger, etc. — are more evident in this film than in previous chapters. And rather than obscure these flaws, director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves, both franchise veterans, arguably amplify them.

What saves the film are Rowling's three greatest achievements: Harry, Ron, and Hermione, who, along with the actors who play them, have evolved beyond the material. The film's narrative gains its emotional footing during the heroic threesome's exile, ostensibly a series of camping trips — with tents and everything — during which they reflect on their journey together, the challenge that awaits them and the sacrifices it will require. Though they occasionally verge on tedious, these excursions into Gethsemane allow us precious quality time with these characters that we've grown to adore over the course of seven films, even if the plaintive air is spoiled a bit by some rather puzzling attempts at product placement. In their rush to flee the Dementors and Death Eaters, it seems that they at least took care to pack the latest in fall fashion:

As devout readers of Rowling's novels know all too well, the only foolproof shield against Voldemort's minions is the Bananicus Republicum charm.

Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.