Muggle rights. House elf liberation. Werewolf acceptance. These are the values that Harry Potter stands for. In the franchise's exciting, penultimate installment, The Deathly Hallows Pt. 1, the near-adult wizard protects those values by going to war with his government.
It's easy to lose sight of that basic plot fact when you're whirling through an aerial battle with dementors, or racing through the semi-enchanted streets of London with our heroes Harry, Ron, and Hermione. But whatever else the Harry Potter books and movies have meant to the millions who love them, they have also always been a fantasy of what would happen if Hitler somehow returned to invade London from beyond the grave - and indeed, beyond our reality.
In director David Yates' third and most persuasive Harry Potter movie, we see clearly how much the final Harry Potter installment is a kind of alternate history of Britain in the wake of World War II. It's an auspicious and intriguingly realistic beginning for this long-awaited first part of the two-movie adaptation of the last novel in J.K. Rowling's series. As A.O. Scott remarked in the New York Times, it's clear that the Harry Potter movies are a phenomenon in their own right - films of other popular YA novels like The Golden Compass failed abysmally - and it's easy to see why in this movie. Yates has made a film that's both a fun diversion and a dark, accurate adaptation of Rowling's story about what happens to the boy who lived when he becomes the man who might not survive.
The movie opens with the newly-installed Minister of Magic giving a disturbing speech in the black-tiled halls of the Ministry - he's calling for law and order, and promising a more active hunt for rabble-rousers who want to "disturb the peace." But even this grim, fascistic Minister isn't in power for more than a few minutes. Voldemort is consolidating his power, and supplies his own politician to lead the Ministry alongside Dolores Umbridge. For the first time, we see Voldemort as the political leader he aspires to be - instead of zooming around like an angry spirit or fever dream, he's sitting at the head of the table in a boardroom, his future cabinet of dark witches and wizards arrayed around him.
Not only have Harry and his friends left the protective walls of Hogwarts and Dumbledore's protection in this movie, but they're weaving dangerously between the world of magic and the world of Muggles. Their adventure begins after Voldemort's forces launch a surprise attack on the Order, who are attending a wedding at the Weasleys. Scattering before the gunshot-like wand fights, the three friends manage to disapparate to London - where Voldemort's forces are so strong that they manage to find and attack the shaken teens in a coffee shop.
And so begins Harry's life on the run, his only home a magical tent in the wilderness, always disapparating to a new location and hiding behind invisible wall of Hermione's hexes and warding spells. Though he and his friends are always a few heartbeats away from being discovered and killed, they continue to work on the mystery that began in the first book: Where are the horcruxes that hold Voldemort's soul, and how can they be destroyed?
Yates keeps the action tightly focused on Harry's almost-adult interpersonal conflicts with Ron and Hermione, while also taking us through the increasingly disturbing political world that Voldemort is creating. Muggle-born wizards and witches are being rounded up and detained; the dungeons are populated by anybody who isn't down with the "Muggles under our boots" sentiment that rules at the Ministry. There's an especially terrific scene when Harry, Ron, and Hermione infiltrate the Ministry via its magical entrance, which requires them to get ankle deep in a public toilet before flushing themselves down.
Both the acting and worldbuilding make it clear that we've entered the adult phase of Harry's life, and this is definitely the right move - though it may be frightening (or boring) for younger viewers. Though Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint can hardly compete with most of the actors who've played the adult characters, in this film their performances work nicely. We're also treated to a satisfying ending, despite being only halfway through a two-part story. Many questions are held for the conclusion, but we still get a graceful arc that doesn't suffer from any annoying cliffhanger abruptness.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is fun escapist fantasy, with a dark, thoughtful thread running through its center.