DON'T EXPECT Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to hold your hand. Director David Yates assumes his audience is up to speed on their Potter lore, and part one of the saga's final installment plunges right into the action—a close-up on the spit-flecked lips of the minister of magic, declaring that dark times have fallen. For our bespectacled hero and his friends, there's no denying things look bleak: Sirius Black and Dumbledore are dead, Voldemort and his Death Eaters have risen to power, and Harry, Hermione, and Ron must leave behind all they know and love in a final attempt to find and destroy Voldemort's remaining Horcruxes.
Previous Harry Potter films have suffered from their attempts to cram hundreds of pages of elaborate plotting into a single feature-length film. That Deathly Hallows is something different—and better—is obvious from its opening scenes: Hermione (Emma Watson) looks heartbroken as she wanders through her family's home, erasing her face from one family photo after another, and her memory from her parents' minds. And as the Dursleys pack up and abandon Number 4 Privet Drive, even Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) seems a little wistful as he bids farewell to the stairwell where he spent the worst part of his childhood.
That we're treated to these small, private snapshots of Harry and Hermione is only the first indication that part one of Deathly Hallows has something its predecessors didn't: time. Time to explore its characters, time to allow J.K. Rowling's plot to fully unfold, and time to chart the darkness that, by book seven, had seeped into every corner of the Potterverse.
This is not to suggest that the movie is boring or that the pacing drags—there's plenty of menace here, occasionally made manifest in the flexing coils of Voldemort's pet snake or Dolores Umbridge's horrible simper, and it's all of a much darker, more hopeless cast than anything we've seen from this world before. There's excitement, too, and humor, and moody adolescent romancing, and some surprisingly strong performances from Hallows' young leads—would you believe all three of them can actually act?—as well as an unexpectedly wrenching turn from Dobby the CG House Elf, voiced by Toby Jones.
But Yates' adaptation lends the series the gravity that fans have hoped for (and that detractors, no doubt, believe is impossible in a story about a boy wizard). Harry and his friends are outlaws, their family and friends are scattered or dead, and their own alliance is beginning to fray. These aren't the loveable moppets of the first few films—Harry's round glasses are an incongruous reminder of just how much these characters have grown, and just how alone they are in a world that's turned against them.