The first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will no doubt break box office records and amass staggering gross revenues both here and abroad. Millions of rabid fans will flock to see the film, regardless of its quality, because it is about Harry Potter, the wunderkind wizard of J.K. Rowling’s creation.

But while the first few installments lacked real cinematic depth, this film is the saga’s finest yet, with moments of quiet character reflection and growth interspersed among the movie’s many frenzied action sequences. This film faces the challenge of being both a stand-alone movie and a prequel to the final Potter film, to be released in July 2011, but manages to play both roles equally well.

The movie begins with a warning, delivered by Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy): “These are dark times, there’s no denying.” Indeed, this movie is much darker than the previous six, as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) leaves the protective comforts of Hogwarts for the dangers of the real world. He, along with Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) must find and destroy Horcruxes, remnants of the soul of arch nemesis Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), in preparation for a final showdown between Harry and Voldemort.

Some of the action scenes are riveting, especially the trio’s infiltration of the Ministry of Magic, in which Harry, Ron and Hermione transform into Ministry workers in order to recapture a locket from Harry’s old adversary, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). There is humor, fear, magic and a little luck in their escape from Voldemort’s minions, and the pacing of the scenes is particularly well executed. Other action scenes are more frenetic, and therefore difficult to follow, such as the attack in Godric’s Hollow and the visit to Xenophilius Lovegood’s (Rhys Ifans) house.

Much of the middle of the movie focuses on the relationships between Harry, Ron and Hermione. Ron, saddled with fears of romance developing between Harry and Hermione, and tired of playing sidekick, reaches his breaking point, abandoning the pair on their quest. He ultimately returns, but the dynamic between the friends changes forever. Radcliffe, Grint and Watson finally have the emotional depth and maturity for these heavy scenes, which are often conveyed through glances and gestures rather than actual words.

The supporting cast, though somewhat underutilized here, is brilliant as ever. Helena Bonham Carter is almost too convincing as the bloodthirsty, terrifyingly unhinged Bellatrix Lestrange, Alan Rickman is always excellent as the inscrutable Severus Snape, Ralph Fiennes menaces as Voldemort, and Rhys Ifans plays the eccentric Xenophilius with just the right amount of weird.

Director David Yates, who also helmed the two most recent Potter films, Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, allows the film welcome breaths among the mayhem. Some of his most beautiful shots, of the countryside and woods through which Harry and company traipse, are held for a beat or two longer than perhaps necessary, which adds subtle lyricism to an otherwise typical action movie.

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