And so it ends. What began 10 years ago in a blaze of magical wands, mysterious potions, swooping Quidditch brooms, and enchanted banquet halls now concludes in terror and sorrow, death and resurrection. Surprisingly, this is more fun than you might expect. There’s a wild ride down into the stony bowels below the Gringott’s goblin bank, and some first-rate dragonizing; and the fiery Battle of Hogwarts lights up the CGI sky as gloriously as any fan could wish.

Still, the most gratifying aspect of Deathly Hallows Part 2, the eighth and final installment of the Harry Potter cinematic saga, is its commitment to the book’s somber dénouement. There’s very little comic relief, and the drained colors and besieged emotions entirely honor the novel’s bleak sensibility. We can be thankful that director David Yates got all that standing-around-talking-in-tents stuff out of the way in Part 1. Here, in a brisk two hours and 10 minutes, he makes space for the story’s tragic elements to build and tower, and for the series’ lead actors to rise to their finest performances.

As the 450-million-or-so buyers of J.K. Rowling’s books will know, this second part of the Hallows story begins with the Wizarding World in tumult. Lord Voldemort’s evil minions, the Death Eaters, have taken over, and even Hogwarts has fallen to the rapacious horde, with the ambiguous Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) installed as headmaster in place of the late Albus Dumbledore. Meanwhile, at a remote seaside location, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), now hunted and desperate, contemplate a darkening future. “I’m afraid you really don’t stand a chance,” says the wand merchant Ollivander (John Hurt), who’s among those on the run with them.

But Harry has a last-ditch plan: to start searching for whatever Horcruxes—the magical artifacts that contain pieces of Voldemort’s soul—are still extant. Armed with the all-powerful Sword of Gryffindor, he can now destroy them—and with them, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) himself. The younger wizard has some loyal support: stalwart Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis, who gets a scene of rousing declamation), spacey Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), the wolfish Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), and the steadfast Weasley clan. However, given the series’ body count to date (we’ve already bid sad farewells to Dumbledore, Mad-Eye Moody, and the lovable/annoying House Elf Dobby), you might fear that several of these characters won’t be emerging alive at the end of the tale. Is it wrong to say you’d be right?

But I’ve said enough. It’s instructive to go back and take a look at the first Potter film, the 2001 Sorcerer’s Stone, to appreciate how far the three leads have come as actors. In the beginning, Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint were on the edge of their teens; they were good even then, for neophyte performers, but they won us over with basic pluck and adorability. Here, they’re all in their early twenties, and more interesting to watch. Grint especially, no longer burdened with being the simple comic doofus of the crew, has a weightier, more attentive presence; and Watson, playing his character’s full-on love interest at this point, is a serious young woman now, and seriously concerned about the perils engulfing her friends. Even Radcliffe, the lightest of the three actors, portrays Harry’s frustration in the face of crushing evil with considerable emotional detail. Whether he’ll evolve into a real leading man still remains to be seen, but this could be a start.

Rickman’s Snape is a richer character this time, too. His icy drawl and mirthless gaze are still in place, but his grievous backstory is finally brought to the fore here, providing—for those unfamiliar with the book—a new prospect on all that’s gone before, and the movie’s emotional peak. And Fiennes continues to make as much as can reasonably be expected out of a character bereft of a nose—although his whispery menace has come to seem a little rote, and I’ll be happy not to have to sit through any more of his overwrought wand-fire showdowns with Harry, either. It must also be said that, while the movie is unusually true to the novel on which it’s based, it is not entirely clear, toward the end, what’s become of the dastardly Malfoy family, especially Draco (Tom Felton).

Still, Part 2, despite its sense of enveloping gloom, is also a gripping adventure, filled with roaring flame monsters, scythe-wielding trolls, and gargoyle soldiers sprung suddenly to life. It’s a grand and fitting conclusion to this long journey, true to the story’s complex aims and to the characters with whom we’ve all, at least a little bit, grown up.

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published in November by St. Martin’s Press.