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The best 'Potter' yet 

'Deathly Hallows' raises the stakes.

THE BEST POTTER YET: Ralph Fiennes stars as Voldemort.
  • THE BEST POTTER YET: Ralph Fiennes stars as Voldemort.

To be perfectly honest with you, I didn't care much for the first few movies in the "Harry Potter" series. Too slapstick. Too precious. Too childish. Too obsessed with the latest CGI goo-gaw, at the expense of character and pacing and plot. While the later films were fair-to-middlin', the main problem was that actor Daniel Radcliffe, who plays the boy wizard, just wasn't all that good back in those days. He just never sold the character's anxiety and fear, and thus the danger of the books largely fell flat on screen.

With age, however, comes maturity and skill. The latest installment of the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" is almost completely on the shoulders of the three main protagonists: Emma Watson (who plays young witch Hermione Grainger), Rupert Grint (who plays Ron Weasley) and Radcliffe. They succeed brilliantly. The result is a film full of tension, pain, and the real emotion that was sometimes lacking in the other stops along the Harry Potter Express. While the early Potter films were clearly meant to be kid flicks, this one is — to its credit — most definitely not. In a word, this is the best, most complex Harry Potter film yet.

With Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) dead, struck from the highest tower of the school by Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), the magical world inhabited by Harry Potter and friends has fallen into chaos and evil is taking over. Soon after the film opens, there's a very tense scene in which Harry and a group of wizard protectors fly into an ambush, with several long-running characters of the series killed or maimed by forces loyal to evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Though Harry knows what he must do — find and destroy seven magical objects called Horcruxes, which contain the dissected soul of Voldemort — the adults around Harry are so protective of him as The Chosen One of prophecy and legend that they won't let him make the sacrifices necessary to bring the endgame. Worse yet, they keep getting killed while trying to protect him, leaving Harry to deal with the guilt of a young man whose friends sacrificed their lives so he could be safe.

Meanwhile, those loyal to Voldemort have seized control of Hogwarts School and The Ministry of Magic (a kind of wizard Department of Homeland Security, complete with secret courts and jails), and have started an effort to cleanse their world of those with non-wizard blood, which the new regime has decreed renders them racially impure. Because of all that, Harry decides to go it alone, disappearing into the world to live off the magical grid while trying to find the Horcruxes before Voldemort becomes so powerful he can't be stopped. His old friends Hermione and Ron insist on joining him, however, leading to a lot of tension, heartache and action as the three friends literally journey into the wilderness in scenes that are as close to Frodo's quest from "Lord of the Rings" as the Potter series will ever get. Meanwhile, their crusade leads them to learn of The Deathly Hallows, the three most powerful objects in the wizarding world, which Voldemort covets as a way to make himself immortal and omnipotent.

As I said, Grint, Watson and Radcliffe are excellent here as the three put-upon friends desperate to protect each other and save their world from evil. The three come across at all times as stripped bare in a way we've never seen them before, genuinely terrified of what's around the corner but pressing on in spite of every instinct they have. The amount of care Radcliffe, Grint and Watson are allowed to lavish on their characters owes a lot to the fact that — unlike other films in the series — "The Deathly Hallows" never makes it to Hogwarts, and that's a good thing. The Potter films have often felt encapsulated within its protected walls, with the school serving as a kind of safe house where Dumbledore and those loyal to him were always ready to step in and save Harry's bacon if things really got serious. With the school and Dumbledore out of the picture, however, the effect is multi-fold. Harry and friends are free to explore the rest of the world, both magical and non-magical, but they are also completely on their own. This leads to moments of real tension, where you find yourself waiting for an adult witch or wizard to swoop in (Deus ex Magica style) and save the day. When that doesn't happen — when Harry and friends are allowed to fail in their quest, at least for awhile — it's a genuine shock. Fold into that an emphasis on character over special effects, and some scenes where I honestly wanted to look away (such as when one of the beloved figures from the series is tortured for information, screaming in pain while literally being branded to mark the character as racially undesirable), and you've got the darkest, most emotional Harry Potter film yet — a film that's less about spectacle and more about the limits a person, even a young person, can push himself to if the lives of his friends are on the line.

In short: Definitely catch it, even if you're not a fan.

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