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Harry Potter

Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars.

Rather than draw out their long 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 even at two-and-a-half 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, sacrifices some particulars of the author’s story but 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.

Whether that’s enough to lure newcomers to the Potter universe remains to be seen. Telling a story so rife with exposition and characters, saddled with the narrative weight of six previous chapters, Deathly Hallows is likely to confuse uninitiated Muggles. Even for those who devoured the book on its arrival in July 2007, a refresher course might be helpful.

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 deliciously contemptuous sneer by Ralph Fiennes, is fast approaching the peak of his powers, and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) forgoes a final year at Hogwarts to 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 shrouded in shadows.

Credit Yates, who directed last year’s Half-Blood Prince — still the most satisfying adaptation of Rowling’s novels — 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. The Boy Who Lived is not yet a man, but faced with 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 understandably absent from 2001’s inaugural adventure, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but essential to the grim world of Deathly Hallows. Here, they are supported by a peerless cast including Imelda Staunton, relentlessly perky as the insidious Dolores Umbridge, and Rhys Ifans, almost unrecognizable with his stark white mane as loony magazine editor Xenophilius Lovegood.

Elsewhere, the reassuring presence of Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore — killed in Half-Blood Prince by mercurial potions professor Severus Snape (whose allegiances remain obscured behind Alan Rickman’s impenetrable scowl) — is sorely missed. Neither actor plays much of a role in Part 1, though both should figure more prominently in next summer’s companion piece.

Once again, the cinematography, handled this time by Eduardo Serra (The Girl Cut in Two), is handsome enough to warrant Oscar consideration.

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 in Potter’s on-screen story, which has lost none of its edge and still races breathlessly, at least in fits and starts, 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.