At last! Though Alfonso Cuarón’s The Prisoner of Azkaban came close, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I is the first entry of the franchise to really capture the essence of J.K. Rowling’s masterworks. Immediately, we can look to the decision to tell the story as two separate films. It’s ironic that this is so important to Deathly Hallows‘ success, since it was clearly done with financial implications in mind, but the choice winds up paying serious dividends. Instead of feeling the need to cram as much from Rowling’s work as possible into a few hours director David Yates is able to take his time and really flesh out The Deathly Hallows‘s dark atmosphere. I’ve heard complaints that this installment is wanting for magic, but that’s a false accusation (or shows a fundamental lack of understanding for what The Deathly Hallows is all about). By this point in the books, there’s a real end-of-days vibe—Dumbledore is dead, the Death Eaters have taken control of much of the lands, and Harry is solidly in the enemies’ cross-hairs—and parts of the narrative bear a distinct resemblance to The Lord of the Rings. Things are bleak. And for the first time onscreen, we see the trials and tribulations of Harry, Ron, Hermione & the rest of the crew exactly how I pictured them while curled up in bed reading.

Unlike, say, The Sorceror’s Stone or The Order of the Phoenix, The Deathly Hallows mostly eschews cuteness and charm. Part of this can be traced to where our protagonists are in life—they’re children still finding their way at the beginning, and by now are battle-tested late teens—but the credit really belongs to Yates, who’s directed the previous three entries. Long, wordless sequences elegantly portray the despair and pain that permeates throughout the party and the land. A stunning animated yarn about the three brothers that form the crux of the deathly hallows legend is absolutely mesmerizing, and might garner my vote for scene of the year. It’s sublime. The music, which was well-composed but often overly dramatic in earlier films, is used much more subtly and ominously here. The cloud of dread never lifts for a moment. The multiple deaths and injuries should emotionally resonate with those who cherish the books. The color schemes boast lots of blacks and silvers like the night and moon, and Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron), and Emma Watson (Hermione), as they should, look grizzled and tuckered out, appropriately worn down from their constant on-the-run ways. There’s even a richness to the compositions that suggests a trust for the audience that we’d yet to be shown. When this ended, two thoughts zipped through my mind. One: part II can’t come quickly enough. And two: the earlier entries, especially Goblet of Fire—which signifies the franchise’s turning point from adventurous-but-charming to seriously intense—could have seriously benefited from being split in twain. The flow in Deathly Hallows: Part I is just perfect. And it’s also perfect, as a die-hard HP fan, to finally have a filmic adaptation that does Rowling’s imagination justice.