Fear and loathing, doom and gloom permeate nearly every minute of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1," the beginning of the end of the behemoth boy-wizard series.
This seventh film in the franchise, directed once again by David Yates (who previously helmed parts five and six, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" and "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"), begins with nearly suffocating tension, as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) finds himself face-to-face with his destiny: being the target of the evil Lord Voldemort's deadly wrath. Friends and allies will have to band together to protect him; some of them won't make it out alive.
Finally, the weight of Harry's past and the frightening unknown of his future, as detailed so thoroughly and vividly in J.K. Rowling's beloved books, are about to collide.
Yates' film is gorgeously bleak, with sprawling, end-of-the-Earth shots of foreboding mountains and lonely beaches from Oscar-nominated cinematographer Eduardo Serra ("Girl With a Pearl Earring") that reflect the characters' moods. Serra has never shot a "Harry Potter" movie before and brings a totally different kind of artfulness to the aesthetics while still remaining consistent with this familiar world. ("Part 1" is in 2-D because, thankfully, Warner Bros. chose not to rush the 3-D conversion process; "Part 2" will be in 3-D when it hits theaters in July.)
The films have grown darker in tone and theme, and given this heightened emotional challenge, the three young stars once again rise to it. Having spent half their lives in these characters, their interactions with one another seem more comfortable and believable than ever. Radcliffe has been solid for a while now, and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger has grown into an engaging young woman, but Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley gives his most confident performance yet.
The supporting cast, as always, is mind-bogglingly star-studded, led by Ralph Fiennes as the fearsome Voldemort and Alan Rickman as the duplicitous Professor Snape, and including Helena Bonham Carter, Imelda Staunton, Julie Walters and newcomer Bill Nighy. It's a welcome sight to see the return of larger-than-life character actors like Robbie Coltrane as the lovable lug Hagrid and Brendan Gleeson as the irreverent "Mad-Eye" Moody; on the other end of the spectrum is Toby Jones, returning as the voice of the diminutive and heroic house elf Dobby.
But because "Part 1" sets up the final showdown in "Part 2" - which Yates also directed - there's lots of exposition in Steve Kloves' script, lots of characters and plot lines introduced and reintroduced from films past. While it's thrilling off the top, it repeatedly sags in the middle before ultimately picking up at the cliffhanger climax.
Voldemort is on the hunt for Harry, and has sent his minions to capture him alive so that he can kill him himself. Meanwhile, Harry, Hermione and Ron must track down and destroy the Horcruxes - scattered containers that hold pieces of Voldemort's soul, which are crucial to Harry's survival. But this pursuit is more dangerous than ever, since Voldemort's Death Eaters have taken over the Ministry of Magic, leaving Harry with less protection. And as we know from the previous film, the regal and wise Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, in brief flashbacks) isn't around to help him, either.
The visually striking sequence in which Harry and his pals assume fake identities to enter the ministry - which is hidden inside the sewers and looks like something out of the Third Reich - is dazzling and intimidating at once. Humor is hard to find here, as you'd expect in a film with the words "Deathly Hallows" in the title, but there are a few laughs to be had at the absurdity of the situation in which Harry, Hermione and Ron find themselves. (Earlier in the film, Ron's twin brothers also provide some of their patented teasing banter.)
But the imaginative energy the students enjoy at Hogwarts is gone here - part one of "Deathly Hallows" never once sets foot in the school's stately corridors - and instead, our trio is very much thrown into the real world. Temporarily stuck in London, they find themselves in a car chase and a shootout (albeit with wands), busy streets and dark alleyways. Danger lurks at every turn, and here, Yates mixes in some hand-held camerawork to provide a more intimate glimpse of their fear.
They're more grown-up than ever now that they're on the verge of leaving school, and since they're on the road searching for Horcruxes (and trying to keep Harry alive), they have plenty of time to explore their blossoming feelings toward each other. These are the sections that sap the film of its energy, but by the time "Part 1" ends, you'll be anxious to see what tricks Harry has up his sleeve once he's forced to face the ultimate evil.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1," a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence and frightening images. Running time: 143 minutes. Three stars out of four.