I imagine Steve Kloves may have done a little jig when he heard the news.

After almost a decade of enduring the thankless task of adapting the world’s most popular books into screenplays (Kloves has scribed all but Order of the Phoenix) the news that Warner Bros wanted to split the seventh and final installment of the franchise must have been a welcome announcement; Kloves would no longer have to attempt to squeeze 800 pages of dense text into a 140-minute movie.

Instead, he could let the movie breathe, give the characters some welcome depth, and take the time to build suspense the way it needs to be done.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, he does just that, and the result is easily the best movie of the series to date.

HP7a (let’s just call a spade a spade, shall we?) is not a slap-dash smattering of highlights from the book, as most of the other movies ended up becoming, but instead, it’s a moving, frightening, dark (though often hilarious, too), engrossing, and flat-out excellent bit of filmmaking.

Note (before we go too much further): I’m amazed at the large number of critics who complain (or, at the very least, point out) that HP7a jumps right into the action, and that you better darn well know the plot of the other six movies/books before you even dream of walking into the theater. Yes, it’s true—but, really, who out there is seeing this movie without an a pretty firm grasp of the first six books, and, oh yes, having already read the book on which this movie is based, too? Seriously, you’ll be fine.

HP7a begins with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) bidding their families goodbye and getting ready to venture off on the hunt for the Horcruxes—the bits of Voldemort’s soul that must be destroyed in order for the world to finally be rid of all evil.

At the same time, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (Ralph Fiennes) is plotting with his cronies in a terrifying scene that will truly make you jump out of your seat.

From there, the story progresses from the wedding at The Burrows to the glorious black marble halls of the Ministry of Magic and then across some of the most beautiful scenery Great Britain has to offer.

Director David Yates and Cinematographer Eduardo Serra have really hit a home run here, blessed with the ability to give each scene the time and attention it deserves. The audience is treated to some of the most stunning visuals not only of the entire Harry Potter franchise but of virtually any film to hit the screen this year. Many of the shots almost have a photographic quality to them, and between the dark, muted palette and the mind-blowing (even, yes, magical) visual effects, HP7a is an incredible feast for the eyes.

But it’s also much more than that. Yes, there’s not a single frame of Hogwarts, and HP mainstays Snape and (the late) Dumbledore are barely seen, but we really don’t need them (their time is still to come in the final chapter). This is, first and foremost, the Radcliffe, Watson & Grint Show, and all three actors deliver their most emotional and utterly convincing performances to date—particularly Watson, who, more than any of her co-stars, is poised for post-HP greatness.

The bulk of the second act finds Harry, Hermione, and Ron with a considerable amount of screen time just to themselves, and the fact that they can single- (well, ‘triple-’) handedly carry this movie on their own is a testament to them finally coming into their own as superb performers.

We’re also given a number of other treats along the way, not the least of which is the quirky animated interlude, by Animation Director Ben Hibon, which tells the story of the Deathly Hallows’ origins.

From start to finish, HP7a will keep you entertained, but more than anything else, it will make you richly appreciate the fact that it’s only the first part of what promises to be one heck of a send-off for the beloved series.

July can’t get here quickly enough.

5/5 stars