The movies are still not as good as the books, but the leads are as charming as ever and provide an appeal and rooting interest that exist independent of Rowling's pages.
I'm glad that the first installment of Deathly Hallows takes us away from Hogwarts and those endless quidditch games and deeper into Harry, Ron and Hermione's feelings.
As the trio goes on the run from the deatheaters, their surroundings are frequently cold, isolated and gray. To match the environment, Hermione is thinner, almost gaunt. Ron is disheveled and disillusioned. Harry is numb and somber, the accumulation of grief (for his parents, Dumbledore and Mad Dog) having robbed him of his wonder and fun.
The characters love and are in love, but there's no heady or light romance. Their ties are made of weightier stuff, which makes them mean more. When Ginny turns her bare back to Harry and asks him to zip her dress, it's a sensual, adult move. Their subsequent kiss is played for comedy when her jokester brother spies them, but the moment is more sober than diverting, portending the future the pair may never see.
Ron and Hermione's affection is more obvious than ever, but continues unexpressed. It's not Harry meeting Sally, where two pals are oblivious of their romantic feelings. Ron and Hermione both know that they love the other, but continue in a platonic mode which makes them feel less vulnerable. Harry's the third wheel in their relationship, trying to comfort both while acknowledging their covert courtship as little as possible.
When the three impersonate employees and smuggle their way into the Ministry of Magic, they end up at a hearing for a doomed muggle-born woman, accused of stealing a wizard's wand. A befuddled Ron finds that he is disguised as her husband and is expected to support her at the trial. Since that falsely accused woman's fate could be Hermione's some day, I'm surprised that Ron didn't exhibit more compassion for her flight, but that mistaken identity is played more for laughs than pathos.
Once exposed at the ministry, the friends must escape. Hiding out in the wilderness, the three form their own fraternity, setting up camp, tolerating bad habits and temper flares, with Hermione carefully planning every step of their journey (including haircuts and clothing) with endless items from her handy, bottomless bag.
Much of the emotion is captured in unfinished thoughts, as when Harry is annoyed by Ron's constantly blaring radio. He wonders what Ron hopes to hear. Hermione points out that maybe what's more important is what Ron doesn't hear. A good point. Harry's parents are dead. Hermione's muggle parents are mostly protected from the wizard wars (especially now that she has erased herself from their memory). It's only Ron who has a large family to miss and worry about. The dialogue also says a lot with few words when Ron lashes out at Hermione and Harry and says he saw them together. Without an elaborate explanation or denial, an earnest Hermione merely exclaims, "there was nothing!"
Of course, what Ron saw between them was not intimate. It was just Hermione and Harry being familiar, domestic and easy with each other, something that Ron and Hermione can rarely do because unspoken attraction creates tension between them. At one point, when Harry tries to mediate peace between his buddies, Hermione tells Harry that she's always angry with Ron. Of course, the truth is, anger is never the overriding feeling.
For me, the best parts of the film were when Ron, influenced by an evil horcross, imagines that Harry and Hermione are in love and angrily leaves, as Hermione begs him to return. She cries silently in his absence while continuing to put puzzle pieces together that might save the world as they know it. Pain that lingers silently seems more realistic than outbursts and speeches.
Hermione and Harry continue alone on their quest for clues that might stop their enemy Voldemort and, even though they share a dance I find gratuitous, I'm thankful that Rowling made these two friends and nothing more. The movie makers did not want to follow her lead, they would have loved to tease the audience with a commercialicious Harry and Hermione flirtation, but, for me, triangles ruin romance rather than heighten it. Desire between Harry and Hermione would have dilluted both the love they find with others and their own friendship. I like to see members of the opposite sex become and remain nothing more than best friends. I like to see "true love" that is monogamous exist in fiction, since it's so elusive in the real world. I'm glad there are no Team Harry and Team Rons in this series.
Ron's return is sweet and not (too) overdone. After saving Harry and vanquishing his own demons by a frozen pond, Ron is reunited with an angry Hermione. She blasts him for abandoning them. He explains that he wanted to come back immediately, but after leaving, he couldn't retrace his way to their moving camp. So, he was alone for weeks, but on Christmas he used the illuminator gift bequeathed to him by Dumbledore and, from it, Hermione's whisper formed a light that found its way straight to his heart, leading him back to his friends.
Soon enough, the trio is captured by snatchers (bounty hunters) who drag them back to Death Eaters who want to save their own lives by turning them over to Voldemort. The boys are thrown into a dungeon while Hermione is tortured upstairs. I'm a little disappointment that Ron is not quite as tormented by Hermione's screams as he was in the book. Helena Bonham Carter plays the head villainess. Having first seen Carter as a girl in Room with a View, I've been bewildered and somewhat dismayed by her insistence upon taking one maniacal role after the other. I'd like more variety from this actress who is fully capable of emoting without chewing the scenery. Still, she is good in these caricature roles and after a few minutes of Bellatrix, I find myself longing for a dose of Carter's Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, as a kicker.
The movie is not without humor and punchlines, but with muggles being hunted like Jews during the Holocaust, there's a sense of fear even in the comic moments and that's as it should be. The danger is real, not merely allegorical, as evidenced by the propaganda leaflets being continuously printed and distributed throughout the wizard world; the framing, trial and imprisonment of innocents; and the sadistic Bellatrix using her teeth to carve the word "mudblood" into Hermione's skin.
The movie does not build to a climax. There's no cliffhanger, only a pause, but I'm relieved not to be left hanging. Going in, I was afraid that Part 1 would end with Ron still estranged from his friends. Waiting for that rift to mend would be more than I could stand. I'm glad that we leave our heroes embattled, but undivided. Voldemort is growing stronger and so is this franchise. I'm glad to have spent 9 years with these people. The scripts haven't been transcendent, but they've created a world that's become more real than magical and that's a good thing.
It's been a satisfying journey and we're reaching the end. Part 2 of Deathly Hallows will be released next summer. As they return to Hogwarts, I believe Harry, Hermione and Ron are ready for their close ups.
Credits roll at the end, not the beginning. I'm surprised that Rupert Grint gets second billing, before Emma Watson. I suppose that's how their names appeared in the first movie and it hasn't changed since then. Not that I mind. I think Watson is the best actress of the three, but have always been a bit sad that Grint gets less attention than the other two. At least he maintains equal status somewhere.