BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Harry, Ron, and Hermione attempt to recover the magical horcruxes in their attempt to defeat Voldemort as he and his followers lay siege to Hogwarts.
PROS: Seamless special effects; tighter energy and focus than previous installments; well-realized chases.
CONS: All third act; steep learning curve for those who have seen none of the movies; by turns too sappy and too emotionally detached; still too long; despite tightening, still difficult to follow the number of characters.
What a long…well, long trip it’s been. Ten years after Warner Brothers took the chance of filming all seven of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy novels to encompass a complete unified series, complete with the same cast (save one, Richard Harris as Dumbledore, who died after filming Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and much of the same crew (screenwriter Steven Kloves has penned seven of the films; Peter Yates has directed four), it finally draws to a close with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. That it has managed to maintain such a tight focus on its vision, to say nothing of a relatively consistent level of quality, over its decade-long run demands no small amount of admiration, if not exactly respect. Honestly, I cannot think of a single series that has managed the same. Moreover, this is a series that has grown up with its audience growing darker as it has progressed. My youngest son was a year old when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opened in theaters; as I write this review, he is eleven and is standing in line with his mother to catch a midnight screening of the new adventure.
That said, for me the series has always been something of a mixed bag. As I said in my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, earlier entries either clung too faithfully to the source material or played more like a greatest hits of scenes than an actual movie (more on this later), often making them either a senseless jumble (as in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) or a Cliff’s Notes version of the work adapted (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Having read the novels, I’m sure would greatly enhance one’s pleasure of the movies (I’ve read and, for the record, enjoyed the first three), though said pleasure should, in theory, come from the work itself.
And by those standards, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 poses a unique challenge. After all, it is not a complete movie, but the third act of the previous one, and therefore cannot (and, frankly, should not) be viewed without having seen Part 1. Indeed, it is all third act, and so must begin at a running pace from the opening credits, where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) break into the Wizarding Bank Gringott’s in order to steal and destroy the second horcrux that will help them ultimately defeat Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Getting there requires them to break in in disguise, with Hermione taking the likeness of Beatrix Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), and taking a railcar (in a scene far too reminiscent of the mine chase in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) through the caverns beneath the bank to Helga’s vault, where the second horcrux, a chalice, is kept. A wizarding battle follows, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione escaping via dragon. The scene bubbles with energy, and Yates appears to have found his footing in drawing out the suspense and action, this time making it far more clear what exactly is happening, both in the vault (which fills with duplicate chalices as the trio attempts to secure and destroy the main one) and out, but it also represents the movie’s key problem: unless one is familiar with the characters and the settings, fully engaging with the scene (and the rest of the movie) proves difficult.
Nonetheless, they destroy the horcurx as Voldemort (who has just obtained the Elder Wand) mounts his siege of Hogwarts. Battles ensure, and some are quite good, though they are secondary to the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort. They must be, I’m sure, yet this constantly shifting focus dampens the impact, and, again, should engage the viewer more than it does, despite the flawless execution. Minor characters get several token heroics, but except for Neville Longbottom’s (Matthew Lewis) actions as the Hogwarts rebellion’s leader, none generate the kind of excitement that should be part of this climactic battle.
On a strictly technical level, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 looks flawless…but then, each movie has. On the level of acting craft, each cast member admirably performs their duties, from series stalwarts Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) and Alan Rickman (Snape) to more recent additions like Bonham Carter…but then, that’s been the case from the first movie. So why have I been so ambivalent?
Perhaps because, as I said, the movies often play more like a greatest hits compilation of scenes from the books than fully realized movies themselves. In this, they resemble David Lynch’s Dune, where Lynch filmed whole scenes from Frank Herbert’s novel without anything coalescing into a unified whole. The difference is that Lynch didn’t understand the story of Dune. Yates and Kloves understand the story of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (as well as the other movies in the series), but felt that not including individual scenes, many of which might be fan favorites, would have met with audience outrage. But by giving the audiences precisely what they want, they have hampered their final product. Judicious cutting and shaping would have made Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (or Part 1 or almost any of the other movies) stronger.
And perhaps packed far more of a real emotional punch. Characters die during the final battle at Hogwarts, but their deaths are treated with very little grief. Maybe it’s just me, but if I was fighting alongside my classmates, people I have come to love, admire, and cherish over the course of six years, I likely would be far more devastated than I ever saw any character here.
Does any of it matter? Perhaps not. The audience with whom I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 cheered and shed tears in all of the right places. As the credits rolled, I realized that this was a movie (and a series) that knew its audience. Almost everybody present had either read the books or was reading them. And whatever they were looking for onscreen they seem to have found. This conclusion to the series (and make no mistake, unlike other series, it has a conclusion) must be bittersweet. Folks like me must possess some element of relief that, for all of its visual bravado and single-mindedness of purpose, for all of its consistency and fidelity to the source material, it’s finally over.
So, Quidditch, anyone?