Funeral wreaths at the ready, for Harry Potter is bowing out. The record-breaking film series, adapted with a stentorian reverence from the JK Rowling bestsellers, totters towards the exit door at the end of a nine-year, seven-picture marathon, as its total running time nudges 20 hours and its inhabitants age before our eyes.
It's going, going, almost gone, and yet its long goodbye comes in two separate instalments: a prolonged death rattle that begins with tonight's London premiere of part one, and won't conclude until the release of part two in July 2011. Only then can the wake begin.
"How can they tell?" quipped Dorothy Parker when told of the death of Calvin Coolidge, and it's tempting to ask a similar question about this, the boy wizard's last hurrah. It's not so much that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows feels at times largely indistinguishable from the six outings preceding it, nor even that part one offers so little in the way of resolution(part two will surely take care of that). It's simply that it's hard to mourn the demise of a franchise that was never more than half-alive to begin with.
Does it move; does it breathe? Were it not for the fact that the world has watched Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint grow up on screen, we might as well have spent the past decade locked up inside a waxwork museum.Part one sees Harry (Radcliffe) attempting to variously evade and defeat the dark lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes): the same mission as it ever was. The big difference this time around is that Hogwarts is now a memory and the school's absence forces our three young castaways to pursue their quest against a Wagnerian backdrop of damp forests and windswept coastlines.
This, it transpires, proves too onerous a task for Ron (Grint), who wimps out for a time and leaves Harry and Hermione (Watson) to go it alone. They cling to each other for comfort as the sexual tension sparks and gutters between them, much as it did for Frodo and Sam on the road to Mordor. Sometimes an illuminated deer will trot over to show them something important.
On other occasions, Hermione will pluck an arcane connection from some forgotten bit of wizarding lore, prompting Harry to widen his eyes and claim that she's brilliant. In this way the plot shunts ever onward in search of closure.
Deathly Hallows looks great, in the way that a show home looks great. Director David Yates has arranged the furniture to perfection. He has laid on the fireworks (I particularly liked The Tale of the Three Brothers, rendered as a shadow-play) and filled the interior with a rich array of celebrity guests, so that the likes of Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Imelda Staunton and Helena Bonham Carter flit between the scenes with the satisfied air of jobbing actors who have been offered walk on roles at the world's most expensive fancy dress ball.
Elsewhere, purists may like to note that Ron gets to perform his signature move of scuttling backwards on his hands and heels while simultaneously gawping at some off-screen monster. Practice, after all, makes perfect and he's been doing this a while.
How will it end and what comes next? There's no doubt the Potter spin-offs have been a reliable cash dispenser for Warner Bros, and no denying that they are deeply loved by the legions of fans that flock to see them. What remains to be seen is how they fare once the final credits roll; how they will stand up 10, 20 or 30 years down the line. Try as I might, I can't shake the suspicion that these films are too obviously built for purpose and too lacking in wit, warmth and humanity to survive much beyond the moment.
So farewell Harry Potter, the literary marvel who became a closed book at the movies. You endured and you prospered. You took up space and leave no trace. After all this time and all these films, it is as though we never really knew you at all.