"These are dark times," says the doomed Minister of Magic at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, and we are swept up into what at first promises to be a familiar installment in the series, with our heroes Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley leaving their homes at the beginning of a new school year to do battle with the evil powers of Voldemort and his followers.
But we quickly realize that the darkness of Deathly Hallows is much worse than what we might expect.
Up till now, Voldemort has mostly been operating outside the law, through secrecy and stratagem, while Harry and his friends have been supported by a wonderful wizarding world of benign institutions and beloved authority figures, including Dumbledore, the Ministry of Magic, and Hogwarts, as well as their friends, and (at least in Ron's case) their families. But now the government has fallen, and with it all of the mentors and social structures that supported the young people in their fight. Voldemort's world is everywhere, and the world of the good guys has vanished. Not even a Weasley wedding is safe.
The stage is set for an anti-totalitarian resistance tale, with the brave band of young people sabotaging the bureaucratic structures of a neo-fascist state. And for the first part of the film, that is the story we get. Voldemort's government recalls Nazi Germany both in its over-the-top state statuary and its obsession with enforcing blood purity. Witches and wizards of non-wizard ancestry, like Hermione, are to be singled out for torture and death. The film's images of racist propaganda and show trials are familiar to us from stories of fascist regimes, and the early scenes of Ron, Hermione, and Harry infiltrating the newly-fallen Ministry of Magic provide a familiar kind of good-versus-evil clarity.
But when the trio leaves London to look for horcruxes (the enchantments that must be broken in order for Voldemort to be vanquished), the genre of the film shifts into something much more interesting and unexpected. The movie turns into a slow-paced story of the experience of the chosen people (or perhaps more accurately the chosen person and his best friends) wandering almost aimlessly in the wilderness, complete with a portable tabernacle (the tent Hermione thoughtfully brought in her bottomless enchanted bag) and a faithful fire by night (the magical pocket light creator that Dumbledore bequeathed to Ron).
For most of the rest of the movie, the drama is no longer about battles with external forces of darkness. Instead, the suspense is about whether Harry, Ron, and Hermione can remain faithful to the beliefs they've inherited, and to each other. They are battling the darkness within. Many of the epic struggles of Deathly Hallows take place in silence, as one of the young people quietly keeps watch in a deserted British landscape, dwarfed by an endless sky. Sometimes the struggles take place in fraught fights within the group, as they argue over why they're still wandering, whether they're heading anywhere, and how they can diffuse the tense relationships of leadership and loyalty between each other. Even Ron and Harry's dramatic show-down with a horcrux is ultimately less a throw-down with evil than it is a struggle with their own doubt and self-doubt, and with the limits of their loyalty.
In these ways The Deathly Hallows is a very Old Testament film, with all the exile, yearning, loss, and hope that that implies. At the end, it leaves us still wandering in the wilderness waiting for Part II. But in the meantime, as we wait for the moment of messianic triumph, we get hints of other religious stories as well. The only two moments of respite and solace in the film are facilitated by Christian music. On a snowy Christmas Eve in the village where he was born, Harry stops and listens to the music coming from the church, and takes a moment to mourn at his parents' grave. And during one of the most magical scenes in a very magical film, Harry and Hermione dance to the gospel-inflected lyrics of "O Children" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds:
"O children, lift up your voice.
Children rejoice, rejoice. ...
Hey little train! Wait for me!
I once was blind but now I see.
We are all jumping on the train that goes to the Kingdom."
The Hogwarts Express may no longer be running, but the Kingdom train is coming...