Review: Final 'Harry Potter' film wraps up series with elegant, epic battle to the death
Writing about "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" is going to have to be, by design, writing about the passage of time, the accumulation of experience, and the development of an opinion about not only what JK Rowling accomplished on the page, but what the producers of the series pulled off with the films.
I looked back at my published words about the series. It's not complete, but I reviewed "Chamber Of Secrets," "Prisoner Of Azkaban," "Order Of The Phoenix," "Half-Blood Prince," and the first half of "Deathly Hallows." There's another piece I found as well that was published the week that Rowling released the final book. Quint and I had a long conversation about it on IM, and decided to just cut and paste it as an article that was, more than anything, a chance for the Talkbackers to discuss the book.
My feelings about Rowling as a writer evolved over time, as her work evolved, and my feelings about the books and my feelings about the movies were not always the same. It's strange for me to look back at my predictions about how things would wrap up and see how right I am at times and how wrong I am at others. As you move from review to review, you can sense that I am more and more impressed as they get closer and closer to pulling it off, and I think David Yates has been a key player in how this series worked. I like that he directed the last four films. That's half the series, and I think he's got a lot to be proud of.
This is, after all, one of the most remarkable accomplishments of the last decade of commercial movie making, whether you like them or not. To pull this off, to accomplish all seven of the books, to make them with one cast that grew with the project, ti's something no one's really done before. I've called this the "7 Up" of fantasy filmmaking, and more than ever, that's what it feels like. It's a series about maturing that, by design, did it for real, the storytelling and the cast and the intensity of it all aging up from film to film. Some small steps, some big jumps, but in the end, there's something undeniable going on in the big picture arc of the entire series and it is, simply put, beautiful.
That's a strange description, perhaps, for a big summer blockbuster, but it is an accurate one. There is an eerie beauty to the way this final confrontation between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort unfolds, and the staging of the Battle For Hogwarts is genuinely epic. And along the way, Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves, who has been onboard for all but one of the adaptations, have managed to make a movie that satisfies as a conclusion without overplaying that hand. This does not just feel like everyone walking out and taking a bow, an empty victory lap. That would have been easy because Warner already has this one in the bag. The question is not whether this film will or won't make money. It's just a matter of how much. The good news is that they'll deserve it, because they've done something special, and they've done it so well here at the end, where it really matters, that I almost want to accuse them of, yes, magic.
The film opens with the exact same shots that closed the previous film, with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) finding the Elder Wand in the tomb of Dumbledore and holding it aloft, and then we cut to Hogwarts, where Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) stands in a high window, watching the students who are now under his supervision. No dialogue at all. Just a few quick images before the title comes up, and then we're into it. This film assumes you're up to speed, and it quickly ramps up into the first major set piece, an attempt on the Gringott's vault of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). By now, there are tricks and gags that are part of the series, like the use of Polyjuice potion or Harry's Cloak of Invisibility, and it's nice to see how they don't have to stop the movie anymore to explain these things. They just do it and keep moving. And the way the sequence builds, it's apparent how far the "Potter" series has come since the clunky early days of "Sorcerer's Stone." Not only are the effects more polished, which is a given since it's been a full decade, but the world itself is just so firmly defined now, so fleshed out and substantial, and the cast has gotten so good at bringing the details to life, that it's easy now to just get lost in what's happening. You don't feel all the heavy lifting anymore, and as a result, this one races by in a way that feels effortless.
After the Gringott's heist, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) need to get back into Hogwarts, and once they do, they need to decide how to handle Lord Voldermort's impending attack. The movie really doesn't do much more than that, story-wise, but it's packed with incident as things accelerate. What keeps the tension so high is the way Voldemort is portrayed here. There's one moment in particular where he walks through the aftermath of a violent encounter, his bare feet on a blood-soaked floor, and just the disconnected disregard for any living thing in his way makes him scary in a way that I wouldn't have thought possible at the start of the series. The very direct goal of finding and destroying the final horcruxes in this film is simple, and the inevitable reveals built into this film have been a long time coming, and they're handled very well. These characters make some major choices in the film, and there are payoffs to things that have been developing over the last seven films. Characters like Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), Ollivander (John Hurt), Griphook (Warwick Davis), Molly Weasley (Julie Walter) and especially Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) all show up here to maximum effect, given their big moments, contributing in vital ways.
The score by Alexandre Desplat is triumphant, and his use of the themes initially established by John Williams is impressive, tying the series together, and Eduardo Serra's photography is perfect for a world teetering on the edge of full-blown magic war. The early Potter films didn't really deliver on indelible images, but as the series has progressed, that's changed, and in this film, there are any number of big iconic sights. What I love is that they're not in the film just to be cool, but are instead important, compelling because of the emotional context, not just because of the light show. The particular mechanics of how the film's conclusion comes together are laid out onscreen in a way that seems to me easy to absorb whether you've read the book or not, handled so that there are many heroes to celebrate when the credits finally roll. The sense of impending menace that is so important to this entry in the series is underlined in scene after scene, whether it's the sight of Dementors hanging in the sky above Hogwarts or a rolling ocean of fire destroying a location that has been key to so many of the films or the gut-punch of two characters, new parents, both dead, but still hand-in-hand, united even in their last moments, and as a result, there is real tension, almost inescapable, always building.
While I personally prefer the "Lord Of The Rings" series overall, I found myself deeply moved by the film's coda, a suggestion that life continues, that there will be continuity in this universe. I'll say this for "Deathly Hallows Part 2," as well… it is efficient in its epic sprawl. The film is one of the shorter entries in the series at just over two hours, but it also feels like there's no fat at all on the film. I'm not a big enough fan to know how much they did or didn't cut from the book, but to me, this feels like the proper emotional crescendo to what's come before. One great example of how they got it right is the handling of Snape in the film. Rickman has often been called on to appear in one or two scenes and then exit stage left in these movies, and this time, he plays a crucial role, his real character finally laid bare. Rickman rises to the material and then some, and the whole film benefits from the way he lets Snape's damaged soul reveal itself. His work is so good that it makes me want to go back and watch the earlier films just to see the work he does along the way. I want to see if he's playing all of his stuff on several levels, aware of his secrets but never overplaying them.
Daniel Radcliffe steps up here with the best performance he's given in the series, making heroic choices that justify every prophecy. He is not just the Boy Who Lived now. He is right there, in the heart of the war, fighting, leading, surrounded by friends and family. He is Harry Potter, Gryffindor, or Harry Potter, boyfriend, or Harry Potter, Order of the Phoenix. He is connected to other people, and he is stronger for it. He and Grint and Watson all seem to have finally vanished into the characters, just in time to wrap it all up. Meanwhile, the entire amazing extended supporting cast, a Who's Who of young and old UK-based performers, makes this feel important. I love seeing Maggie Smith play a scene like the one where she activates an important part of the defensive line at Hogwarts, and I think the casting in this series has always said to viewers, "We are taking this seriously, so you should, too." When Dumbledore's brother shows up, it could be anyone. You could have cast Carrot Top at this point just because the price is right, and that would have been that. Instead, it's Ciaran Hinds. He doesn't show up for long, but he makes his presence felt, and that just shows how seriously they take every single role.
I feel very lucky to have watched the "Harry Potter" series unfold in real time over the years. These are going to live on, rewatched for years to come, just like the books, and I look forward to the day I can watch them with my own boys. But for now, I'll just enjoy knowing that I saw a studio pull off something almost impossible yesterday, and I'll marvel at just how poised and confident the entire production seems, how well it all comes together. And when the film finally ends, when those last few images play out, it is more than satisfying. It is triumphant.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" storms the Muggle world in theaters and IMAX this Friday, July 15.