Voldemort's (Ralph Fiennes) power is growing stronger. He now has control over the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) decide to finish Dumbledore's (Michael Gambon) work and find the rest of the Horcruxes to defeat the Dark Lord. But little hope remains for them, so everything they do must go as planned.

4.5
An expansive, dark start to the long goodbye for the Hogwarts wizards.

The most pressing questions raised by the seventh edition of the most successful film franchise of all time can be summarized thus: Was Warner Bros.’ decision to film J.K. Rowling’s final Harry Potter novel as a two-parter a cynical plan to needlessly prolong the series? Will Hogwarts fans embrace this edition with as much fervour as greeted the predecessors? And is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 worth watching in the unlikely event you haven’t seen any of the earlier works?

The answers: No; yes, apart from small fry who may find it overly frightening; and probably not.

The studio and the producers can justifiably claim that Rowling’s 759-page tome provides ample material for two movies, although whether part 1’s running time of 146 minutes is merited is highly debatable.

Potter devotees will find much to admire in the movie directed by David Yates (who also presided over the previous two instalments), although its sensibility is much closer to that of a horror movie than a traditional fantasy/adventure.

The pluses include some wonderful action sequences, the deaths of a major and minor character, a dash of romance, flashes of wit and Steve Kloves’ expansive screenplay which enables Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint to develop and enrich their characters more fully than in any previous chapter.

But the middle section drags interminably as Harry, Hermione and Ron drift around a post-Apocalyptic landscape, plagued with self-doubt, jealousies and recriminations. Younger viewers may squirm at a few scenes depicting torture and find the deaths troubling. Cameos by the likes of John Hurt, Jason Isaacs and Timothy Spall are so brief they’re of little value.

The opening sequence introduces Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy, affecting a strange Welsh lilt when his normal voice would have been just fine) as he intones, 'These are dark times, there's no denying," and warns that arch-villain Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his Death Eaters are on the verge of seizing control after killing Dumbledore in the climactic moments of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The young wizards and their families plan to escape to a safe haven while Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) insists on creating clones of Harry as decoys to distract the Death Eaters. There follows a spectacular chase through the air and by road, culminating in an assault at a wedding.

Two Death Eaters disguised as Muggles attack our trio at a café, after which they penetrate the Ministry of Magic, a nightmarish place with echoes of the Third Reich, in search of the Horcruxes, which contain fragments of the Dark Lord's soul, and are confronted by their former tormenter Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, a vision in fluffy pink).

Then they flee to a forest where Ron wanders off and Harry and Hermione dance while a Nick Cave song tinkles on a radio, generating a slight degree of sexual tension. After being pursued by Voldemort’s giant snake, Harry faces further danger and nearly drowns until he’s rescued by the returning Ron.

In one of the most imaginative sequences, the wizards learn about the Legend of the Three Brothers, brilliantly depicted in the form of a shadow play. The climax involving the demonic Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and Dobby the elf are thrilling. The ending is a little abrupt but sets the scene for part 2, rendered in 3D, which opens in July 2011.

Radcliffe adroitly handles Harry’s moments of introspection and angry outbursts, Watson is especially good in the way she reacts to Ron’s weird or gauche behaviour, and Grint conveys Ron’s jealousy and paranoia. As the cadaverous Voldemort, Fiennes doesn’t have much to do except leer and sneer but the closing chapter will surely see him in full, terrifying flight.