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IHarry Pot­ter and the Deathly Hal­lows: Part 1, be­gin­ning of the end of the boy-wizard epic, rated PG-13, Re­gal Sta­dium 14, 3 chiles If you’re a mug­gle who has been liv­ing un­der a rock since the late 1990s, please don’t buy a ticket for this movie. This in­stall­ment in the Harry Pot­ter saga — the first of two films based on J.K. Rowl­ing’s fi­nal book — re­quires a nearly en­cy­clo­pe­dic re­call of the de­tails and char­ac­ters and doesn’t, strictly speak­ing, work on its own. That doesn’t mean it’s not good.

Here’s a quick re­fresher: Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione must leave the com­forts of home and Hog­warts School of Witch­craft and Wizardry be­hind. They have a mis­sion: track down and de­stroy Hor­cruxes, dark mag­i­cal items that hold pieces of the evil Volde­mort’s soul and make him im­mor­tal. Mean­while, the wizard­ing world has be­come a dan­ger­ous place for en­e­mies of the dark lord. He and his Death Eater fol­low­ers have seized con­trol of the Min­istry of Magic and are tor­tur­ing and im­pris­on­ing any­one who dares op­pose them.

Di­rec­tor David Yates and screen­writer Steve Kloves surely grap­pled with the same is­sue that has vexed the cre­ators of ev­ery Pot­ter film to date: mil­lions of fans ex­pect­ing fealty to the well-loved, ex­cru­ci­at­ingly pored-over text. Be­cause this, the penul­ti­mate film in the se­ries, is de­signed to pre­pare us for next sum­mer’s cli­mac­tic, con­clud­ing show­down, even less of Rowl­ing’s labyrinthine nar­ra­tive can be left out. So al­though the de­ci­sion to split the novel in two could seem like des­per­ate grab for cash on the part of Warner Broth­ers, in this case, I think it’s bet­ter to in­clude too much story than not enough. And choos­ing a half­way point must have been tough. Rowl­ing’s novel doesn’t ex­actly have an entr’acte.

Kloves does a nice job of con­dens­ing the cru­cial el­e­ments into grip­ping, in­tensely dra­matic seg­ments, cov­er­ing some 480 of the book’s daunt­ing 759 pages. Just when it seems like the gang might be get­ting a lit­tle too chatty — the story re­quires a good bit of ex­po­si­tion — Kloves and Yates in­ter­ject fast-paced ac­tion se­quences (in­clud­ing a Bour­netril­ogy-lite chase through traf­fic).

Like their char­ac­ters, Daniel Rad­cliffe (Harry), Ru­pert Grint (Ron), and Emma Wat­son (Hermione) are all grown up (Harry is show­ing signs of a fairly heavy beard — I as­sume Hermione packs a ra­zor in her mag­i­cally ex­pan­sive hand­bag). They’re com­fort­able with each other, not to men­tion prac­ticed pro­fes­sion­als, and they give their best per­for­mances to date. The rest of the cast list reads like an honor roll of Bri­tish stars (Ralph Fi­ennes, Alan Rick­man, He­lena Bon­ham Carter, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Rob­bie Coltrane, et al.) who don’t need me to sing their praises.

Cin­e­matog­ra­pher Ed­uardo Serra ( Girl With a Pearl Ear­ring) gor­geously cap­tures the wooded glades, rocky cliffs, and peb­bly coves where our mag­i­cal trio camps. The CGI is bet­ter than ever — par­tic­u­larly the snake Nagini and house elves Kreacher and Dobby, who look creep­ily near-hu­man. Yates breaks new ground by us­ing a strik­ing an­i­ma­tion se­quence to re­count the tale of the “deathly hal­lows” — a trio of pow­er­ful mag­i­cal ob­jects.

That said, the hair and makeup de­part­ments went a lit­tle over­board. In place of the wild flyaway hair that suited a crazy for­mer prison in­mate, Bel­la­trix Les­trange (He­lena Bon­ham Carter) is hid­den be­neath a mass of Shirley Tem­ple-gone-evil curls. Pro­fes­sor Snape (Alan Rick­man) typ­i­cally has a sal­low com­plex­ion and stringy hair, but for Deathly Hal­lows, he’s wear­ing smudgy gray­ish eye shadow, and his hair has been fluffed and feath­ered. He looks less like an omi­nous dark wizard than he does a goth drag queen.

Deathly Hal­lows de­serves its PG-13 rat­ing. It’s darker, more fright­en­ing, and griz­zlier than its pre­de­ces­sors. Yates lets us know right away that this film’s vi­o­lence will be messier and more re­al­is­tic: in the open­ing scene, Volde­mort tor­tures and kills a Hog­warts pro­fes­sor, and we see her blood and tears up close. You might have to look away when Hermione fran­ti­cally tries to re­pair Ron’s “splinched” arm. On the other hand, you might have a hard time look­ing away from Ron’s Hor­cruxin­duced vi­sion of Harry and Hermione snog­ging in the nude.

The film serves up po­lit­i­cal mes­sages, too. Volde­mort’s Min­istry of Magic looks like a mag­i­cal Third Re­ich head­quar­ters, com­plete with pro­pa­ganda pam­phlets (“When Muggles At­tack” and “Mud­bloods and the Dangers They Pose,” for ex­am­ple). When Bel­la­trix carves mud­blood into Hermione’s arm, I couldn’t help but think of con­cen­tra­tion-camp tat­toos. Is this just a mes­sage about the mis­takes of the past? Ari­zona’s SB 1070 lin­gered in the back of my mind — im­mi­gra­tion is­sues seem one step away from de­bates about “blood pu­rity.”

The re­fusal to pussy­foot around the book’s dark­ness be­comes part of the film’s prob­lem, though. The light­ing is dim, gloomy, and nearly monochro­matic — just in case we think track­ing down Hor­cruxes isn’t se­ri­ous busi­ness. Harry, Ron, and Hermione do a lot of thought­ful star­ing. With very few ex­cep­tions, ev­ery­one’s cloth­ing is drab, though trendy and im­pec­ca­bly lay­ered. Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s scenes in the wood­lands re­minded me of some­thing out of an Ur­ban Out­fit­ters cat­a­log.

Ob­vi­ously, this isn’t a chil­dren’s story any­more. Even the score, by Alexan­dre De­s­plat, is sub­tle and so­phis­ti­cated. We get no more whim­si­cal magic or quid­ditch matches. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in the real world now, and there’s dan­ger around ev­ery corner. Kloves does in­ject some lev­ity here and there, of­ten cour­tesy of Ron’s twin broth­ers (played by James and Oliver Phelps), who pro­vide a wel­come dose of snarky ban­ter. Still, I’d cau­tion against tak­ing young chil­dren to see this film, un­less they’re al­ready Pot­ter­heads.

The end­ing isn’t much of a cliffhanger, at least in con­ven­tional terms, but it’s as good and omi­nous a closer as any. At the end of the film’s 146-minute run­ning time, fanny fa­tigue not­with­stand­ing, I would ea­gerly have stayed for Part 2 if the theater had of­fered to show it.

House-elf party: From left, Ru­pert Grint, Daniel Rad­cliffe, Emma Wat­son, and Andy Lin­den

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