Rather than draw out their goodbyes in a single sitting, as Peter Jackson’s Hobbits did in his too-long “Lord of the Rings” finale, Team Harry’s swan song will unfold in two parts, a decision dismissed in some quarters as purely a marketing strategy.
Yet at 2½ hours, the first installment of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” — J.K. Rowling’s conclusion to the saga of an orphaned wizard destined to battle a Hitler-like menace — emerges as the most faithful adaptation in the series.
Readers expecting everything plus the kitchen sink — or, in this case, seven magical Horcruxes — should not be disappointed.
Bill Nighy, making an unsmiling series debut as Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour, sets the mood in the first frame: “These are dark times,” we are told, and with Death Eaters terrorizing the countryside, murdering Muggles and Mudbloods for sport, it’s hard to argue.
The Dark Lord Voldemort, played with a contemptuous sneer by Ralph Fiennes, is fast approaching the peak of his powers, and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) must seek and destroy the scattered remains of his archenemy’s soul.
Close behind, as always, are BFFs Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), whose turbulent teenage romance lends welcome levity to a story so shrouded in shadows.
Credit Yates, who directed last year’s “Half-Blood Prince” and will stay on for “Part 2,” due July 15, with honoring the book’s ominous tone, making “Deathly Hallows” the bleakest “Potter” movie to date. Facing the prospect of a holocaust he alone can prevent, Harry is growing up fast.
Radcliffe, Grint and Watson, all in their early 20s, now command the screen with a maturity essential to the grim world of “Deathly Hallows.”
They are supported by a peerless cast including Imelda Staunton, relentlessly perky as the insidious Dolores Umbridge, and Rhys Ifans, almost unrecognizable as loony magazine editor Xenophilius Lovegood.
Where the movie comes up short, however slightly, is in its pacing. Though longtime “Potter” screenwriter Steve Kloves has done an admirable job of slicing Rowling’s exhaustively detailed final fantasy into separate halves, he sometimes crams too much information into a single scene.
“Deathly Hallows” never drags, but neither does it move at the brisk, buoyant tempo of “Half-Blood Prince.”
No matter. Those invested in Rowling’s seven-volume saga should have no trouble losing themselves once again in Potter’s onscreen story, racing breathlessly toward the showdown we’ve been promised since Harry first arrived at Hogwarts.
If we have to wait another half-year to get there, so be it. See you in July.
Three and a half stars
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Rhys Ifans, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Julie Walters
Written by Steve Kloves
Directed by David Yates
Running time 2 hours 26 minutes