When a movie begins with the Warner Bros. logo crumbling in decay and ends with a defiled grave, you know you've experienced an evening of magic. Replacing the baroque wonders of Hogwarts with a greasy tent in barren landscapes, exchanging occasionally threatening whimsy for relentless dread, degradation, and torture, and featuring a palette of colors ranging from desolate grays to fetid browns to utter black, the penultimate Harry Potter movie is as much fun as a vacation in North Korea. But in a good way. I can't think of any recent film in these timid times that evokes so claustrophobically the terror, deceit, injustice, oppression, and even genocide of a fascist regime. By all means, bring the kids.
So how did we get to this point, 3000 or so pages into J.K. Rowling's uneven but immense YA epic? For those who don't know their Death Eaters from their Dementors, David Yates's third foray into the franchise (he also directs the upcoming conclusion, The Deathly Hallows: Part Two) doesn't offer much guidance. By way of exposition, there are characters — often Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) himself — asking questions like "Who is that now?", or saying things like "I didn't know he had a brother," or looking blank when someone asks, "You are of course familiar with the story of the three brothers . . . ?"
That last story is told in part by means of animation as bleakly beautiful as much of the movie, and it helps explain the title. But hang on there with these three Deathly Hallows — we’re still working on the seven Horcruxes from the previous movie, in which, prior to his death at the hands of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) instructed Harry to seek out these talismans containing the fragmented soul of the arch enemy, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Before, of course, Voldemort can kill Harry first. Things were so much simpler in The Lord of the Rings.
With Dumbledore dead and Voldemort in charge, the magical world now resembles Stalinist Russia as seen in a Pink Floyd music video, with the inhabitants dehumanized and living in fear. Harry, the last hope of freedom, must flee with his comrades Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) and fulfill his mission. Unfortunately, they don't know where most of the Horcruxes are, or what to do with them when they find them. So, hidden in the wilderness, the trio try to decipher the few clues they have and come up with some answers.
Which means a lot of pondering, bickering, and petty jealousy — none of it helped by the negative energy of the one Horcrux they've managed to recover but not yet destroy. At times, the film seems as numinously empty as the Seventh Seal scene in which the Knight plays chess with Death. At others, it seems merely talky and overdetermined and burdened with its million-word backstory.
But then it'll reward your patience and depression with an image that's almost visionary — Harry being guided by a patronus (they're kind of like the dæmons in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials) in the form of a deer, for example, or the tiny tent seen from high above lost in the endless windings of a rocky wasteland. This is one movie in which the natural effects exceed the special kind. And then other moments stand out because of their simple humanity, scenes in which loved ones are united or lost. Those are the most magical moments of all.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article stated that Voldemort himself killed Dumbledore.