Harry, Ron and Hermione abandon the safety of Hogwarts in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," and so does this dark and despairing penultimate adaptation of J.K. Rowling's epic fantasy cycle. As the three teenage wizards enter the wilderness to do battle with Lord Voldemort, director David Yates spins the series' most expansive, structurally free-form chapter yet -- lumbering and gripping by turns, and suffused with a profound sense of solitude and loss. Having made it this far, the Potter faithful won't be deterred by "Part 1's" bleak, inconclusive tenor, spelling phenomenal returns and raising expectations for a truly spectacular finish.
While the seven-book saga has run its course (notwithstanding Rowling's recent hint that she may revisit the Potter-verse at a later date), the global moviegoing audience has shown no signs of losing interest in the Warner Bros. franchise; last year's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" was one of the series' strongest performers, with $934 million worldwide. Even without 3D ticket premiums for "Part 1," there's no reason the B.O. upswing shouldn't continue, with auds likely to reserve their most enthusiastic attendance for "Part 2," which will be released July 15 to no doubt even greater fanfare (and in 3D, to boot).
Long before this seventh film ends -- with the death of a series regular and a chilling coup for the Dark Lord -- it's been made clear that there was no way to do justice to "Deathly Hallows" without dividing it in two. Commercial benefits aside, there's simply too much story to cover in one gulp, even with returning scribe Steve Kloves doing his usual judicious pruning of what is easily Rowling's most unruly novel -- a thrilling, overwrought epic that brings her intricate mythology to a messy but satisfying close.
As a result, and perhaps through little fault of its own, Yates' film at times seems to falter under the weight of its exposition. Tasked with finding and destroying the remaining Horcruxes (accursed objects containing fragments of Voldemort's soul), the central trio must track elusive leads, decode arcane symbols and research unfamiliar names in the wizarding world, all rattled off so quickly at times that even those familiar with the text may be in need of a flow chart. Still, the filmmakers are to be applauded for not pandering to the few Potter virgins who may be in the audience, and for pushing the series ahead into unapologetically darker realms.
A poignant prologue establishes the sacrifices Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) must make to protect their families under the new world order, as the now all-powerful Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, cruelly exacting) plots Harry's destruction. For the first time in the series, danger really does lurk behind every corner; there seems to be a fresh Death Eater attack every 10 minutes, and the body count mounts precipitously as Yates reels off one chaotic, CG-heavy setpiece after another: a harrowing mission to escort Harry to safety with the aid of magical decoys; a wedding that ends in catastrophe; and a daring raid on the Ministry of Magic, which has taken on decidedly Third Reich-ish overtones in its persecution of Muggle-born wizards, overseen by the loathsome Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton).
But the emotional centerpiece of "Deathly Hallows" is a relatively static stretch during which our heroes seek refuge in the woods, and the tight bond of Harry and Ron's friendship begins to fray as they grapple with frustration, uncertainty and jealousy over Hermione's perceived affections. It's a parched, depressive interlude, marked by a strong feeling of isolation (and beautifully shot at Blighty's Burnham Beeches) that may bore some viewers, but as the major turning point for the saga's foundational relationships, it affords Radcliffe, Grint and Watson some of their finest moments.
Indeed, Yates achieves his most resonant effects not with wizards' duels or Harry's painful visions (of which there are plenty to go around), but with lingering silences and moments of privileged intimacy; one standout passage, in which the titular Deathly Hallows are explained, makes extended use of animation that's quite unlike anything else in the films so far. Yates is destined to be the filmmaker most associated with the franchise by virtue of having helmed more installments than anyone else, and if his work has never quite reclaimed the poetic heights of Alfonso Cuaron's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," he has guided at least three of four films with a gravely elegant hand.
"Deathly Hallows" proceeds with a grim seriousness of purpose and a matter-of-fact creepiness, and the occasional moments of levity, mostly courtesy of Ron's twin brothers Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps), feel more welcome than ever, even if they're not always gracefully integrated. With its occasional scenes of maiming and torture (administered by Helena Bonham Carter's psychotic Bellatrix Lestrange), the PG-13 film is noticeably bloodier than its predecessors, though it's likely just a taste of what's to come.
Among the newcomers maintaining the films' high acting standards are Bill Nighy, who warranted more screen time as the strident new Minister of Magic; Peter Mullan as an especially vicious Death Eater; and Rhys Ifans as the kooky, not entirely trustworthy father of Luna Lovegood (the lovely Evanna Lynch). Also worthy of mention is Toby Jones' vocal turn as Dobby the house-elf, once a Jar Jar Binks-style irritant but now a figure of the utmost nobility.
Further stamping "Deathly Hallows" with a distinct cinematic identity, Yates has called upon the fresh talents of composer Alexandre Desplat, delivering a subtle, full-flavored score with few traces of John Williams, and lenser Eduardo Serra, whose spare landscape shots offer a breathtaking contrast to the moody chiaroscuro of the most recent Hogwarts-set pictures.