It's the beginning of the end for Harry Potter. The final film in the hugely popular adaptations of JK Rowling's seven-book series phenomenon is upon us. Well, almost. As the title suggests, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 has a Part 2 – due next July – after it was decided Rowling's 600-page finale to her boy wizard saga merited two movies. Whether it does is debatable – with the viewer left with the feeling this is an entrée before the main course next summer.
Of course, it would take more than this to deter the dedicated hordes of fans, some of whom were so determined to see the cast that they camped out in the rain on Wednesday night for the best view of the red carpet. As well as tents, sleeping bags and chairs, many took wizard and witch costumes.
That the film has the feel of an appetiser is one of many problems faced by David Yates, now the franchise's longest-serving director with four films under his belt. With Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) on the run, this is the first film set away from Hogwarts, the school where they spent their teenage years. Which sadly means no scenes in the Great Hall, with a bemused Maggie Smith wondering why she's surrounded by dozens of drama school brats.
Then there's the inevitable darkness that envelopes much of Rowling's conclusion. To be fair, Yates doesn't shy away from it. The opening scenes, as the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) rages "I must be the one to kill Harry Potter", are as ominous as the dark clouds that swirl overhead. By the time a giant snake slithers down a table, opening its jaws to the camera, it's clear this will be the scariest Potter since Alfonso Cuarón's 2004 effort Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, arguably the best of the series to date.
There are some beguiling scenes. Radcliffe gets his Being John Malkovich moment, when seven friends turn themselves into Harry to act as decoys. Then there's the beautiful use of shadow-puppet style animation to illustrate the tale of the Three Brothers. Add to that a barnstorming turn from new cast addition Peter Mullan as Voldemort sidekick Yaxley and you might think there's much to enjoy.
Yet if Part I struggles, it's because it sags when it should soar – not least in the protracted scenes where Harry and co hit the road to seek out a series of artefacts ("Horcruxes") to bring down Voldemort. As the trio squabble their way across remote countryside, the film loses traction – with the scenes doing as much rambling as the characters. What's more, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson – as much as they've grown in these roles – are left exposed without the safety of adult actors around them.
Still, for what is ostensibly a film aimed at children, Yates allows some adult themes – from Ron's jealousy of Harry and Hermione (yes, they do kiss in his mind) to the rise of fascism and ethnic cleansing. Ending on a death that'll leave the little ones distraught, even if Part I feels over-stretched at 150 minutes, it finishes strongly. Your appetite will be whetted for what promises to be an almighty showdown before the curtain comes down on Harry Potter for good.