(by Dustin Putman
It is difficult to believe that in just four months of this writing, the "Harry Potter" film series will be marking its tenth anniversary. Now, with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2," that series has come to a stunner of a conclusion that should make proud just about everyone: the adoring fans of J.K. Rowling's rabidly popular novels, viewers who have not read the books but have followed and enjoyed the movies, and the passionate actors and filmmakers who have dedicated the better part of a decade of their lives to ensuring justice would, indeed, be served. What began as relatively light family-friendly fantasies with 2001's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and 2002's "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" has, over the course of the six proceeding motion pictures, deepened and matured along with its characters. This franchise, now complete, stands deftly alongside such epic genre achievements as the "Star Wars" saga and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Moody, sprawling, complex narratives interweaving a life-or-death struggle between good and evil with the, some might say, just as delicate and prickly act of coming of age, these films have transformed confidently and comprehensibly into anything but kiddie fare. And, as it turns out, the best was saved for last. Article continues below
As the fight against Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) edges ever closer, 17-year-old wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) stands on the precipice of fulfilling his promise as "the chosen one" while continuing his search alongside best friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) for the remaining Horcruxes—hidden pieces of Voldemort's soul that have rendered him immortal. Following a narrow escape and the retrieval of another Horcrux from Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange's (Helena Bonham Carter) personal bank vault at Gringotts, the trio suspect another one may be hidden somewhere at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. No sooner have they returned to their old academic stomping ground, now under the leadership of the enigmatic Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), than Voldemort and his dark army close in on the property. As the school is besieged and its faculty and students prepare to defend it, Harry comes face-to-face with a revelation long concealed from him and a destiny that may require the biggest sacrifice of all if he hopes to overcome Voldemort and save the wizarding world.
The decision to separate J.K. Rowling's final tome into two separate features was initially met with controversy, some saying that it was a flimsy ploy by studio Warner Bros. to eke out one extra surefire cash boon from audiences and others arguing that a single regular-lengthed movie would severely compromise the adaptation of its source material. In this reviewer's opinion, the most ideal compromise would have been to not chop the finale into two, but to tighten and judiciously trim the fat away from 2010's occasionally meandering "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" and combine it with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" for a staggering three-hour-plus epic. Viewers who regularly see all the "Harry Potter" films would not have complained about the extended running time and it would have sent things out on the strongest, most replete high possible. By chopping the last book into two pictures, each one only tells half of a story and lacks a three-act structure. It is a testament to the creative assuredness and artistry involved that, even taking into account this hindrance, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" stands as a mesmerizing, affecting, never less than riveting accomplishment.
Returning director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves are in top form, their exquisitely in-tune, humane work destined to go underappreciated because they make their jobs seem so deceptively easy. If the previous picture—for all intents and purposes, the first half of the story—was more focused on setup and character-oriented moments of soul-searching, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" cuts almost immediately to the chase. Dizzying, massively-scaled action set-pieces pile on top of each other without a second to lose, and, indeed, this is one film where not a sliver of footage could afford to be lost. Besides showing up someone like Michael Bay at every turn, masterminding and choreographing excitement in a classical, spatially coherent way that builds tension, never grows confusing or aesthetically chaotic, and actually achieves, you know, excitement, David Yates never misplaces the urgency and empathy within his characters' inner beings. The "Harry Potter" series has worked as spectacle, to be sure, but beside that—and first and foremost—has been a tale about people rather than things. Take away the literal magic and the viewer is still left with a poignant fable of a boy growing into a man while learning about some uncommonly daunting responsibilities that have been fated to fall on his shoulders. He may have special powers, but none of them make him immune from the very real pains and longings of adolescence. This quandary has been building over time, steadily and surely, and it is in this finale that things boil to a head. For Harry, for his friends and classmates and teachers, the time has come to make the crucial decisions that will decide the course of their lives.
If most movies of this nature tend to feature the occasional standout sequence in between sections of obligatory plot filler, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" is the opposite. Nearly every sequence is simply the latest pleasurable highlight to thrill, rattle, and grab emotionally as the narrative unravels, evolves and surprises. The action, story and characters play out like an expert tapestry, each aspect in service of fulfilling and complimenting the others. When a spell is cast that turns Hermione's exterior into that of Bellatrix as a means of infiltrating her vault, a lot of tense fun is had in playing with one's expectations. Will she be able to pull the wool over the eyes of the diminutive goblins running the bank without being found out that she's an imposter? After a roller-coaster-like journey into the underground lair, Harry's, Ron's and Hermione's subsequent escape back to the surface on the back of a dragon who had been guarding the vault is as technically impressive (a mixture of solid CGI, practical effects and models reminding of the seamless work done in 1993's "Jurassic Park") as it is ultimately wondrous when the lot of them take to the sky. The centerpiece, though, is the extended battle at Hogwarts, a fiery showdown of dangerous foreboding and outright visual marvels. Lives are lost (some of them a little too abruptly glimpsed after the fact), destruction reigns, and the victims cling to their humanity in the face of evil; in this way, the film plays like a 9/11 allegory of unexpected accuracy and insight. Figures too frequently in the background find their time to shine—Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) is mighty fierce and feisty in vowing to protect her students, while Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) proves to be a quick-thinking hero in more ways than one—and long-simmering threads, like the soulful feelings between Hermione and Ron, come to much-anticipated payoffs.
If the previous "Deathly Hallows Part 1" was practically stolen by Emma Watson's achingly authentic performance as the conflicted, crest-fallen, yet bravely loyal Hermione and Rupert Grint has been steadfastly reliable over the years as Ron, this climactic adventure belongs to Harry. Daniel Radcliffe (2007's "December Boys") is called upon to grapple with no less than the notion of losing his life to defeat Voldemort, and all that the actor has grown and learned over his ten years in the role are invaluable tools for living up to the challenges set before him. Without daring to give the details away, the film's best scene—one that sheds light on the adversarial relationship between Harry and Snape—is certain to bowl over audiences who haven't read the book, surpass the loftiest of hopes from fans of the novel, and approach gut-wrenching levels of pathos for all involved. Edited with enthralling fluidity by Mark Day, the imperative flashbacks that ensue and the surrounding truths that come out of their present-day exchange put everything into a new, game-changing perspective. So often difficult to pin down in his evasive intentions, Snape is in a lot of ways the picture's most tragic figure, and Alan Rickman (2008's "Bottle Shock") is beautifully devastating in the regretful, low-key tone he blesses the part with.
Of course, with any succession of films as extensive as this coming to a close, there are bound to be a few minor debits. Tom Felton is very good as Draco Malfoy's cowardly but not genuinely malevolent colors come through, yet the finished product lacks that last flourish between himself and Harry that would have more effectively and satisfyingly tied up their conflicted longtime relationship. A last little one-on-one exchange between Harry and Ron would also have been appreciated, if not necessary, while the defeat over certain bad guys feels a bit too quick and basic. With so much going on simultaneously, it is easy to lose track of characters, and that is what happens here just a couple times, especially in regards to the quirky Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), who goes missing from a sizable chunk of the second half only to reappear at the end. As huge in scope as the rest of the all-out war is the final match-off pitting Harry against Voldemort is a little on the rudimentary side by comparison. Fortunately, Ralph Fiennes (2010's "Clash of the Titans") has grown into an iconic heavy, a meanly reptilian symbol of cruelty and decay impossible to forget, and what follows their tussle goes above and beyond the most hopeful of prospects. The aftermath between friends Harry, Ron and Hermione set on the rubble-strewn bridge at Hogwarts is quietly, touchingly perfect, and the epilogue, getting just right what could have gone wrong as the characters move ahead nineteen years into the future, makes for a poetic capper speaking eloquently and gently about the passage of time and the natural process of life.
Melodrama of a lyrical, operatic order, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" is a careful balancing act that avoids maudlin emotions and captures what's right and real about Harry's journey from boy to man, from childhood innocence to adulthood, from novice wizard to a changed person who still clings to the goodness of heart within others. Gritty yet handsome, grim but sumptuous, the film is a bevy of riches in a tight two-hour package. The music score by Alexandre Desplat (2011's "The Tree of Life"), carrying over several of John Williams' original strains while envisioning new ones that are memorable, plaintive, and thoroughly haunting, is as grand as it should be without ever becoming obtrusive. Visual effects are seamless to the point where only the most obvious examples can be spotted. Art direction is superb in its gothic inspirations, increasing in warmer hues once the darkness subsides. The work of the make-up artists, particularly that done on Griphook (Warwick Davis), is stunning; they ought to just accept the Oscar statuette now and get it over with.
While it is difficult to say conclusively what the film might have been like if the entire novel had been adapted as a one-and-done vision, let it be known all the same that "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" is ceaselessly paced, marvelously crafted, and thematically provocative. So much is going on that it demands multiple viewings—not because it's confused or overly hectic, but because it is simply so methodically mapped out and layered with details (subjective and technical) that one cannot possibly drink it all in the first time around. Harry's—nay, Hogwarts'—fight, it turns out, isn't only about overthrowing the nefarious powers of the world for today, but also tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. For Harry's children, and the generations to come after that, there's no other option. That the film—and Rowling's novel—recognizes this signals intentions far larger and more universal than that of some silly throwaway fantasy series. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" is but one of eight for the ages.