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It's the beginning of the end -- literally.
Perhaps as a response to J.K. Rowling devotees' frequent complaints that the Harry Potter novels have often had to be compressed or severely edited on their way to the big screen, Warner Bros. has divided "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the finale of the series, into two films. The more cynical among us might speculate the decision had more to do with doubling the potential box office returns than it did with honoring the fans' wishes: Consider that even the least successful "Potter" picture, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," brought in just under $800 million worldwide.
Regardless of the reasoning, the moody "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" (the conclusion opens July 15, in case you want to mark your calendar) is one of the few installments that doesn't feel like it's racing against the clock to tell its story. Characters actually have time to react to and interact with each other, instead of hurrying from one plot point to the next. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) each face emotional upheavals in the course of the story, and the actors seem relieved to be given a few extra moments to process what they're feeling.
The elegiac tone of the film is set almost instantly, as each teenager realizes he or she has a role to play in the wizardry world's resistance movement against the Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his terrifying army of Death Eaters. Harry takes one last look at the cramped, musty cupboard that was once his bedroom. Hermione, fearing her parents might not understand her decision to abandon her studies in favor of fighting, casts a spell to obliterate her from their memories; it also removes her image from family portraits, leaving a series of oddly incomplete framed photos on the living room mantle.
As one might expect in the closing chapter of a saga, "Hallows" is full of these kinds of wistful flashbacks and pained goodbyes. The atmosphere is often ominous and the air seems to be charged with suspicion and paranoia. "These are dark times, there is no denying," growls by Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy) in the movie's opening line.
Yet, at the same time, director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves successfully incorporate some of the funniest scenes in the entire series into the sometimes grim action. An early sequence involving a plan to protect Harry with an army of clones is superbly executed, and a pivotal episode in which Harry, Ron and Hermione don disguises to infiltrate the Ministry of Magic, now held by their enemies, smoothly combines suspense and off-the-wall humor.
"Hallows" doesn't soft-sell its shocking segments, either. If you have read Rowling's novel, you know there are many grisly scenes and several untimely deaths along the way as the author carefully sets the stage for what promises to be a spectacular final battle, pitting Voldemort and his legions against the forces of good, led by, of course, Harry, whom Ron semi-sarcastically refers to as "the Chosen One."
The set-up to that showdown is preceded by a quest and a lot of self-questioning. Harry, Ron and Hermione embark on a search-and-destroy mission, tracking down the remaining Horcruxes, seemingly innocuous items containing part of the souls of evil wizards. Along the way, their friendships and their ideals will be put to the test.
By the way, if you've never seen the other "Potter" movies or read the books, this is definitely not the place to start: "Hallows" takes it for granted that the audience is well-versed in Harry history and will instantly grasp references to Muggles, Half-Bloods, Sirius Black, Dumbledore and the Hogwarts Express.
"Hallows" is the first of the "Potter" pictures to avoid Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry entirely, a choice that takes both our heroic trio and the viewers outside of their comfort zones. (Those who miss the halls of Hogwarts will be relieved to know it figures quite prominently in the second part of the story.) Most of the film sees Harry, Ron and Hermione on the run, first on the bustling streets of London and then through a series of woodsy locations drawn from Hermione's memories of family vacations. Wherever they go, they never feel safe for long: Harry has been branded "Undesirable No. 1" by the new regime at the Ministry of Magic, and Voldemort's foot soldiers are continually on the lookout for him. So Harry and his friends are forced to wander in the wilderness while finding the courage and clarity they will need to face their destinies.
Some "Hallows" readers griped that the high-stakes hide-and-seek game went on far too long. They may have the same reservations about the movie's treatment of it, even though Kloves does his best to liven up this slow stretch with a couple of startling twists -- including Harry and Hermione as you've never seen them before -- and a genuinely peculiar interlude involving, of all things, a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song.
By the time "Hallows" rolls out one of its highlights, a brilliant animated segment that relates "The Tale of Three Brothers" through multi-dimensional shadow puppets, the film has regained its rhythm and the tension builds steadily to a climax, in which darkness seems to have the upper hand, so to speak.
While many of the familiar faces from earlier "Potter" adventures resurface throughout the film, most of them make only fleeting appearances (some will get more exposure in Part Two). Aside from Fiennes, once again the embodiment of maniacal malevolence as the hideously deformed Voldemort, the standouts include Rhys Ifans as befuddled crusading journalist Xenophilius Lovegood and Helena Bonham Carter, eerily entrancing as the wild-eyed witch Bellatrix Lestrange, who truly delights in tormenting and torturing her prey.
The core of the film, of course, is the marvelous interplay between Radcliffe, Grint and Watson. In several of the key scenes in "Hallows" we get an opportunity to once again appreciate what strong, charismatic performers they have become and how splendidly they work together: In a movie overflowing with curses, mysteries and spells, they remind us that star chemistry can be pretty magical in its own right.