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In the old days of Saturday matinee serials, audiences faced with cliffhanger endings took comfort in knowing that the story would be resumed one week later. The same can’t be said for the latest Harry Potter picture, which offers much incident but no resolution: for that, we all have to wait until next year. If you’re a dedicated Potter fan, you’ll have to take what you can from this one—mainly, the pleasure of spending time with its leading characters and the young actors who play them. Following J.K. Rowling’s narrative, there are no scenes at Hogwarts’ Academy. This denies us the opportunity to revel in seeing the finest British actors alive in the vast Potter ensemble; we get only token appearances from Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane and a handful of others, while Maggie Smith, as Professor McGonagall, is absent altogether.

The movie starts out on the right foot, as Harry—now marked for death by the evil Lord Voldemort—is surrounded by his—

—best friends and allies, who vow to protect him. These scenes capture the sense of magic and wonder that characterize the series at its best, but as the story progresses, our heroes (Harry, Hermione and Ron) are left on their own much of the time, and the energy level drops, along with the rousing emotions we feel at the outset.

Deathly Hallows feels more episodic than usual for a Potter film—which is saying a lot. Slow-paced scenes of the protagonists on the lam are punctuated by spurts of action, creating a seesaw effect in terms of pacing. It may be unfair to blame director David Yates, who had to play the cards he was dealt. Unfamiliar character relationships are presented as matter-of-fact, and one notable figure dies off-screen with just a casual line of dialogue to mark his demise.

At this point in the series’ life its major point of interest to many moviegoers is watching its youthful stars mature. After all, it’s been a decade since we first encountered Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, so we’ve watched them all grow up. It’s a testament to the Potter producers who chose them so many years ago that they’ve all fulfilled their promise and retained their commitment to these endearing characters.

I don’t know if the decision to cut Rowling’s final novel in half was strictly commercial, or if the filmmakers (including longtime series screenwriter Steve Kloves) felt they couldn’t squeeze the entire book into one movie. Either way, the result seems less like a full-fledged story than a place-holder, and I can’t say I left feeling satisfied.

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