Anyone who complained that the previous episode in the ‘Harry Potter’ saga felt too much like scene-setting for the final showdown will be equally disappointed with ‘Deathly Hallows Part 1’. A film with no beginning and no end but a whole lot of expository middle, this is the least satisfying instalment in the series since Chris Columbus folded up his director’s chair.

Bill Nighy’s dour, dandified Minister of Magic sets the tone with a barbed speech bemoaning the state of the magical nation: murders, disappearances and raids are becoming commonplace and no one, it seems, is safe. Least of all our bespectacled hero, who bids farewell to the suburbia of his youth before being whisked away in the film’s only outright action sequence, a dizzying high-speed flying-bike chase through the Dartford tunnel.

The ensuing half hour is business as usual: an entertaining balance of sorcery, slapstick and sweetness, enlivened by a handful of scary scenes and a surprisingly sadistic streak of black humour. But once the kids decide to break out on their own, setting off across the shattered English countryside on the trail of the four remaining shards of the Dark Lord Voldemort’s soul, things take a bleaker turn, and they never quite recover. Part of the problem is JK Rowling’s source material: there are too many characters, too much backstory and too many magical Mcguffins to keep track of. The episodic plot wanders as aimlessly as the children, culminating in the would-be tragic death of a character we’ve barely been introduced to.

On this evidence, the producers’ decision to cut the final movie in two feels like a mistake: despite some undoubted highlights, ‘Deathly Hallows Part 1’ feels like the weaker half of a still-promising film.