Everybody has tough teenage years, but damn does Harry Potter have issues. Sure, we’ve all dealt with shifty relatives and hormonally imbalanced friends with mean streaks. But we didn’t have the lord of all that is evil breathing down our necks, gigantic snakes trying to eat us, or a crazed government hunting us down in the midst of a genocide attempt on wizard-human lovechildren.
But maturing with their audiences is something the Harry Potter films have always done well: The movies have aged in themes, tones and maturity with their protagonists—following the kiddie romp Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001, the series hit puberty with Alfonso Cuaron’s rollicking Prisoner of Azkaban, which married dark themes with a bubbly joyride for kids. It hasn’t looked back since.
Now, we near the end of the road with Deathly Hallows, Part 1, the first half of the final chapter, wherein Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) must get all Frodo on Lord Voldemort (the terrifically menacing Ralph Fiennes) by destroying a series of gems possessing fragments of his soul. To do so, he and BFFs Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) go on the road, abandoning Hogwarts and all the fine British thespians who reside there.
The series’ child actors have spent the past decade in these roles, and it’s refreshing to see them mature. Each young actor shows chops, from Radcliffe’s tortured chosen one to Watson’s peppy Nancy Drew type. But it’s Grint who shines here, breaking away from comic relief to show serious skill as Ron is seduced with darkness and jealousy. Of all the actors in the series, the goofy-looking Grint emerges in Deathly Hallows as the standout.
Director David Yates, a veteran of three Potters, starts the affair with a dazzling airborne motorcycle-vs.-broom chase and keeps the action and scares coming. The director doesn’t shy from Rowlings’ darker themes and violence both psychological and physical, including a startling Red Scare-inspired trial, a pair of intense torture scenes, and a wonderfully macabre animated sequence.
That’s what many will find difficult. This is, after all, a family film, but one featuring the deaths of now-beloved characters and hints of genocide. Gone are the rotten-egg jellybeans and Quiddich games. There’s humor, but it’s buried in themes as dark and heavy as the burdens carried by its protagonist. They’re sure to get darker with the all-out war promised by the series finale, set for July. But Hallows manages to make what is essentially half a movie thrilling. Despite some lull time in the middle, the film moves briskly along with dazzling effects and gorgeous cinematography. Like its characters, the series has matured under Yates’ direction. The only trouble with Harry is that his torments may have matured beyond the young minds that brought his saga into the spotlight in the first place. PG-13.