You're just a few minutes into "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1," when it becomes explicitly clear that, no matter how much the other entries in the franchise have flirted with "darkness," this will be a completely different experience. In the scene, Hermione (Emma Watson) is seen at her parents' home. Her parents, as we know, are human (or "Muggles") and therefore not entirely clued in to the apocalyptic doom that's been gathering, like very literal storm clouds, in the magical world. To protect her parents, she waves her wand over them, and she is instantly erased from all of the family photos. She's literally cast herself out of their lives. It's a small moment, and subtle too, but it sets up the stakes well... even if this is only half of the final chapter.
A sense of paranoia and dread blankets 'Deathly Hallows' with the realization that reptilian super-wizard Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, deliciously creepy) has amassed his conspirators (among them Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter and Jason Isaacs) and is seizing control of mystical strongholds like the Ministry of Magic (run here by a prickly Bill Nighy) and, of course, Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his chums Hermione and Ron (Rupert Grint) are protected by a slew of older-generation wizards known as the Order of the Phoenix (among them: Brendan Gleeson, Robbie Coltrane and David Thewlis).
In a breathless opening chase sequence, the Order of the Phoenix, each disguised to look exactly like Harry, is thinned considerably when they're attacked by a legion of Voldemort's followers (known as Death Eaters). The sequence whizzes by thanks to director David Yates (who previously helmed the 'Order of the Phoenix' and 'Half-Blood Prince' entries), who has placed a strong emphasis on Harry's point of view, which is at times thrilling and exhilarating, but sometimes comes at the cost of dramatic heft (like when a notable member of the team is killed, off screen, during this chase sequence).
This sequence of extreme terror is followed immediately by a quiet moment of joy: the wedding of one of the Weasley brothers to a comely French wizard. It's a brief interlude and a chance to get reacquainted with a whole bunch of the characters from previous movies and, of course, acts as a reminder that any moment of joy will just as quickly be squashed. Soon, the Death Eaters show up again, and panic overtakes the crowd. This forces the trio of youngsters to set out on their own, on a series of adventures, some more rewarding than others.
One of the great things that director Yates has brought to the series during his prolonged tenure as director and franchise shepherd is to put the magical characters in the real world as much as possible. It's funny, for one, and adds another dimension of cultural relevancy to the franchise. It isn't a coincidence that he frames a shot of the kids crouching down underneath a CCTV sign; it's hard not to make connections between the fear-based wizard world and the real-life United Kingdom.
The other thing that Yates has done, which becomes strikingly clear in this movie, is drain the color palette of anything but the barest essentials -- gray, black, and white are virtually all you see here. First of all, it makes the movie look fucking incredible -- the Ministry of Magic is all polished marble and sleek, mirrored surfaces -- and the other thing it does is make moments of extreme joy (like the bright colors of the wedding) or pain (noticeably: blood) stand out in striking opposition. It's a subtle device and something he's dialed up over the last few movies, but here it just takes your breath away; a ballsy and brilliant choice for this kind of large-scale entertainment.
Once the kids are out on their own, the pace slows dramatically while the scope of the movie opens up to encompass Lean-ian vistas. This is the section of the movie where most will probably complain (loudly), but there's more mayhem to come and we will come to see these sequences, with their heartfelt conversations and hormonal scuffles, as things to cherish, since the second part of "Deathly Hollows" will be all-out war. What the kids are trying to do during these sequences is somewhat murky: it's all about the horcruxes, splintered slices of Voldemort's soul that he's hidden in various mystical objects around the globe. But that doesn't matter all that much. In one particularly ingenious sequence, Yates, saddled with an unhealthy amount of exposition, creates a mini-movie in and of itself. This tale of magical items is rendered like a stop-motion movie or some kind of Japanese shadow puppetry. It's absolutely gorgeous and, in a true feat, never felt like it was stopping the movie dead, even though that's exactly what it fucking does.
The movie picks up a bit after this extended "road trip" stuff, and when it does, you'll be thrilled. (And, yes, that's John Hurt back for a bit after a nice cameo in the first movie.) The movie culminates in a wonderfully tense suspense set piece, aided as much by Yates' staging as by Alexandre Desplat's score, the best the series has been blessed with (sorry John Williams). Those unfamiliar with the story, or craving a tidy conclusion, will obviously find this wanting: this is the most fist-balling, "I want it now" cliffhanger since "Kill Bill, Vol. 1." But taken as a whole, this first part of "Deathly Hallows" will still leave you reeling. Maybe it's sentimentality creeping in, now that we're nearing the end of the franchise, but there were more than a few genuinely touching moments in this film, ones that felt deeply indebted to real, utterly human emotions. And, you know, the magic wands were cool too. [A-]