The decision to cut the seventh and final Harry Potter novel into two parts for its film adaptation was a damn bad choice, made for obvious financial reasons despite the filmmaker's urgent, repetitive insistence that it was because of that book's "density". A transparently stupid claim: the book was already sick with padding, relative to the three books that preceded it, and every one of those was turned into a fleet, terrifically engaging adventure movie.

But here we are with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the adaptation of the most tedious parts of J.K. Rowling's fairly tedious novel (sorry to all the Potter faithful, but it's not remotely in the same league as the best books in the series), and it is, shockingly, a bit tedious. The biggest shock is that it's not more tedious: though, on its own, it's the worst film in the series since the first two, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, ghastly drab things that choked for any air or hint of life under the hand of anti-visionary Chris Columbus, it's still a reasonably entertaining fantasy picture, albeit one that would have been well-served with a running time much shorter than its endless 146 minutes, which are at once not long enough to give Rowling's doorstop all the room it needs to breathe (though it is internally coherent more than most if not all of the preceding Harry Potter films), and too bloated with self-indulgence for a narrative that moves this slowly.

So: following the events of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is without a mentor, a protector, or a safe place at his beloved Hogwarts, and as the new film begins, he is going underground with the aide of a whole mess of protectors. Meanwhile, he and his dear friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) are prepared to go even deeper underground, moving across Britain to find the remaining Horcruxes, the evil objects in which the evil wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has stored his evil soul. Where in the hell the Horcruxes might be, what to do with them, and how to stay safe in a perilous world where Voldemort's Death Eaters - the wizards as have gone bad - are in control of the Ministry of Magic; these are questions much on the teens' minds, but there's little time to consider the answers in the midst of all the moving from place to place and hiding in the woods and leaping on any little clue that comes their way.

Though the film is, essentially, the second part of a trilogy, and thus starts without a beginning and ends without a conclusion, writer Steve Kloves (who has adapted six of the seven films in the series) does a yeoman's job of structuring the narrative so that Deathly Hallows 1 does function as a story, more or less; in contrast to something like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which is virtually incoherent considered as an individual movie. Not that Deathly Hallows 1 feels tremendously resolved in and of itself; it spends no time setting things up for anybody who hasn' seen the first six movies, while the main conflict is no closer to completion at the end of the movie than at the beginning. But by cutting things off right where he does, Kloves was able to introduce a fake secondary conflict, and end right after that conflict is resolved, allowing the movie to at least have something approximating a climax and falling action.

But it doesn't help him solve the bigger problem of the movie, which is that far, far too much of the action consists of three kids in a tent, having no idea what to do, and being scared. It died on the page, and if it does not quite die as badly in the screen, it is mostly because the film is pretty and the young actors, whose performances across the seven films have been erratic and inconsistent (though Grint has, on the whole, been the most solid, and Radcliffe the least), are quite convincing as a trio worn down by stress, responsibility, and evil magic, and what reads as endless pages of bitchery and whining plays here as tension and character drama. Still, Deathly Hallows 1 has a lot more time than incident, and most of the time is filled with reams and reams of exposition; in this the film is better able to tell a story than any of the preceding films, all of which relied to some extent on the viewer's knowledge of the books, though those films made up for it with headlong action and energy, which the stultifying Deathly Hallows 1 generally lacks.

Director David Yates, making his third Potter film, seems to suffer from this: though he was never exactly a visionary director, there was a clipped, sensible effectiveness to his work in Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that kept those films easy to watch, even when the tone went elegiac on us, as it often did in Half-Blood Prince. Deathly Hallows 1 blasts straight past "elegiac" and ends up at "funereal", with Yates finding new and ever more delicate ways to stress the profound loss experienced by our heroes at every turn. "We're alone", says Hermione in one scene, and the fade to black that follows her line is as menacingly nihilistic as anything in a Bergman film. The mood suits the content, and gives the film a certain heft that befits the penultimate entry in a decade-long movie series; but it does nothing for its value as entertainment, nor does it make two and a half hours feel any shorter.

That said, Eduardo Serra's cinematography (he is now the sixth man to shoot a Potter film) captures this funereal tone with characteristic elegance: it is the most colorless film in the series by far, and not just because of the numerous scenes set in a snowy forest - a location Yates and Serra render with breathtaking severity - but because of the blanched-out greys that are Serra's chief palette. It is a sterner, harsher movie than the series has seen before, as strained and bleached as a corpse. Not as beautiful nor as controlled as Bruno Delbonnel's work in Half-Blood Prince nor Sławomir Idziak's in Order of the Phoenix, for how could it be? - but Serra continues the series' recent tradition of truly excellent cinematography, even if his work is brilliant largely because of how unsentimental and discomfiting it is, and for that reason less likely to win awards than e.g. Delbonnel's delightfully unexpected Oscar nomination.

Along with Serra, the one man who does the most to raise the movie above its wordy, endless script is production designer Stuart Craig, who has worked on Potter and nothing but since 2001, but hasn't for some time had the chance this film gave him: freed from the tyranny of Hogwarts, where every other film has taken place in part or in full, he at last got to start from scratch, and responds with a wonderful cavalcade of new ideas. His evocation of the Ministry of Magic is absolutely jaw-dropping, a fantasy world grounded in real-world thinking, built according to an unstated but obvious internal logic, shiny and austere; and then on the other hand there is his Godric's Hollow, a silent, close country town, with an delightfully ghost story-ish abandoned old house serving as focal point. It's his best work since the first movie, when he got to create this lavish world in the first place.

Other than the visuals, however, the film is mostly more of the same, only less so: Alexandre Desplat's music fulfills his curse of writing one bland, hack score for every excellent, unexpected one (which was, this year, The Ghost Writer) and the less said about the actors, the better: other than Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson, along with Fiennes, who gets far more to do here than in his other tiny appearances in the series, it's mostly a whole string of cameos by the small army of great British actors who have populated this series throughout: Bill Nighy joins the fun in a role that he apparently took because of the relish with which he rolls the words "Harry Pott-tah" around in his mouth - and does virtually nothing else before dying offscreen - and Rhys Ifans actually gets a decent amount of screentime as a quirky, paranoid publisher; while recurring actors like David Thewlis, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton, Miranda Richardson, and Warwick Davis get to pop up and wave hi at the camera, while Maggie Smith and Emma Thompson don't appear at all, and Michael Gambon's only new footage is as a dead body. Even Alan Rickman's Snape, always one of the most reliable parts of the movies, barely registers.

That said, there's very little wrong with the film that isn't a conceptual issue stretching back to the novel itself; still, I wish that Yates and company had spent a bit less time with Harry and Hermione dancing to Nick Cave (in a risible scene that is half-played for comedy, half for pathos which never, ever shows up), and a bit more trying to push the story forward a bit faster. Still, they've left off at just the right moment to make sure that the next and final chapter will be virtually non-stop action. Which doesn't help Deathly Hallows 1 much at all, but I suspect it will wear well. It was never meant to be a stand-alone movie, after all.