"These are dark times," the Minister for Magic (Bill Nighy) announces right off the bat, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 plays positively like a limbo game of how low can you go into dark, darker, darkest. The first half of a two-film adaptation of J.K. Rowling's final book about the battle between the damaged boy wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and the monstrous dark lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), this is, as a whole, the finest Potter film yet.
Top to bottom, it's a thrilling piece of cinema, from the superlative digital effects and original score to the camerawork of cinematographer Eduardo Serra and Steve Kloves' deft distillation of one-half of 784 pages. Gone are the sweet high jinks at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, as well as any "hey, look at me!" magical inventions. Deathly Hallows is all business - taut, fraught and fearsome. When Voldemort's minions, the Death Eaters, storm the Ministry and install themselves as fascistic rulers, Harry and best friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) go underground.
This is a quest movie, one that sends the three friends trudging through a winter-ravaged British landscape to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes, talismans in which Voldemort safeguarded splinters of his soul. There's an additional mystery - that of the title's Deathly Hallows - and it turns out to be a very grim fairy tale indeed, which is illuminated here in an animated sequence designed and directed by Ben Hibon. It's a stunning shadow play, and the level of artistry in this three-minute set piece surpasses anything yet seen in the Potter films.
But there are simpler, less technically razzle-dazzle moments to savor, too. Kloves goes off book to write an original, incandescent scene between Harry and Hermione that wordlessly elides a raw mix of emotions, and he gives Ron, now plainly in love with Hermione, a monumental monologue that is at once tender and winning and ripe for later ribbing.
Deathly Hallows has been stripped of the series' tendency to mug for laughs. What remains is genuinely funny stuff that is still truthful to the spirit of these characters, whom we've watched grow up. They remain fundamentally the same, only now with jaws set hard from troubled times behind and before them. They've been through something epic, and for the first time, truly, so have we.