When Warner Brothers announced that it planned to split the seventh, and final, installment of J.K. Rowling's wizarding septology into two separate films, I figured it was all about the money. Turns out it was all about the story.

Rather than breathlessly race from one set piece to the next, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (HP 7.1 to you) gives its characters and audience time to inhale and process the gravity of the situation.

They have learned much at Hogwarts. Now Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) apply that hard-won knowledge and magic outside the academy's protecting walls where soul-sucking Death Eaters streak across dark skies hunting for lunch. The fledglings are now 17 and 18, dropping out of school to save it, themselves, and the world.

They are so young for such responsibility. But they greet it with purpose in David Yates' subdued, angsty film. It may not be the finest in the HP series, but it is second or third, behind Alfonso Cuarón's Prisoner of Azkaban and near-equal to Mike Newell's Goblet of Fire. (Yates also directed the serviceable HPs 5 and 6.)

Getting to the Horcrux of the matter is the theme of Deathly Hallows. To challenge the evil regime of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, of the noseless, snakelike visage), the three youths look for "Horcruxes," those fragments of Voldemort's soul that have been implanted in objects so that if he is killed, he can be resurrected.

One of these objects may be in the Ministry of Magic, now under Voldemort's evil spell. So Harry and friends must breach this fortress, even though Harry is a wanted wizard with a bounty on his head.

To continue the quest, Ron and Hermione must leave their families in order to protect them. When Hermione "obliviates" herself from the memories of her parents and photoshops herself out of family snapshots, we get the picture of how alone and unprotected the youths are.

Yates' pitch-perfect film substitutes Alexandre Desplat's plaintive score, which punctuates long stretches of silence, for the reassuring protection of John Williams' familiar themes. Desplat's moody music is the sonic expression of the characters' fraught emotional state.

Stripped of the familiar, Harry, Hermione, and Ron camp near wintry lakes and wind-lashed coasts, and in haunted forests, puzzling over the riddle of the Horcrux. Their rocky relations are manifest in the stony landscapes captured by cinematographer Eduardo Serra.

For long stretches of the film, the three are shot amid natural scenery, taking their adolescent struggle out of the magical realm and making it palpably more realistic. However emotionally affecting, it is surprisingly lacking in sexual undercurrent, given that much of the film is about three teens unchaperoned and in close quarters.

Because the movie is less hectic and focuses on external action, it makes the viewer aware of the characters' inner lives - and, likewise, increasingly aware that Hermione and Ron don't make much sense as a couple. What they share is love of Harry, not mutual love, making theirs one of the odder romantic triangles.

Thus when Ron, in a fit of Horcrux-influenced jealousy, abandons his friends and Harry and Hermione slow-dance to a Nick Cave song, the brief realignment suggests narrative possibilities that go unrealized.

The Harry Potter movies amount to a full-employment act for virtually every British thespian over 50 (only Colin Firth and Hugh Grant have not yet served time) and they're a wild bunch, this time including Rhys Ifans as Luna Lovegood's crunchy father.

Among the leads, Radcliffe alternates between playing the wet blanket and the dry wit, and Grint strikes a few sparks as his ambivalent protector. It is Watson who catches fire as the strategist and soldier of this penultimate Potter quest. Watson's so good that one wishes Rowling had built her septology around Hermione Potter.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/