And so what began ten years ago comes to an end, after seven outstanding books and eight very good, bordering sometimes on brilliant films. J. K. Rowling changed the world with her Harry Potter books, getting little boys and girls reading again, getting them away from the dreaded television and internet and allowing them to delve into a book as generations before them had done, addicting them to all things Potter. Trust me, I have an eleven year old in the house who insists, INSISTS on giving movie critic dad Harry Potter pop quizzes and exams. I wish I was joking.
There were two movie franchises born in 2001, the first being Peter Jackson’s superb trilogy of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, which he spread over three years, spanning 2001-2003, the final film winning a record tying eleven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. The second franchise was of course Warner Brothers Harry Potter, which even the great Steven Spielberg turned down an offer to direct. Chris Columbus stepped in to direct the first two films and did a splendid job of bringing the magic and darkness of the tales to the screen. A few other directors have taken turns directing the films since, but David Yates, a little known television director has done a brilliant job with the last three films, in particular, the final one, which is an action packed knockout in every way.
In this finale, our hero Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) will come face to face at long last with the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), as the attack on Hogwarts School finally happens. Voldemort’s armies of minions attack the school, the vicious Death Eaters wreaking havoc everywhere they go. Harry and his friends, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) come to the aid of their classmates and teachers who have been defending the school, virtually in vain, and all hell breaks loose. Make no mistake this is war and in war people die, and in this film beloved characters meet their doom. With that said prepare for at least one devastating death that will bring goose bumps to your flesh when it happens and some tears to the eyes. Marvel at how a mother will go to war against the person trying to kill her child, and watch how a long thought to be evil man was really in fact the protector of something very good, sacrificing virtually everything about him in the process, living his life in the shadows under this umbrella of doom and gloom. If you have read the book, and I have, you know what of I speak, if not, sit back and enjoy because the film is a breathtaking knockout.
Watching the young actors grow from children into young adults has been a great deal of fun, but watching them improve as actors and artists has been one of the more rewarding aspects of the series for me. Radcliffe has emerged as a very powerful actor and presence, and though short at 5’5, he has the fiery presence of a riled up Michael J. Fox and brings Harry to brilliant vivid life. His forays onto the stage have made him one of the most daring actors of his generation, performing in the classic Equus on Broadway and in the delightful musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying display a musical comedy gift not apparent in the Potter films. His friends, portrayed by Rupert Grint and Emma Watson have grown and expanded as actors with him, though Watson appears to be the better of the three, a darkly beautiful young lady with astounding talent, she has come so far since her days as the know it all little girl with terrible hair.
The Potter films have always been a who’s who of the British acting world, providing great roles for some of the world’s world class actors. Maggie Smith has been in the films since the very beginning as Professor McGonagall, a shape-shifter turned warrior in the last film; while Alan Rickman has been Snape, the dubious master of the dark arts who is a great deal more than he seems. I think we have always suspected Snape to be very different than the man he pretends to be and this is exactly right and was a nice turn of events. Though his character is dead, Michael Gambon continues as Professor Dumbledore, bringing an almost regal presence to the role, which he took over after the untimely death of Dumbledore originator Richard Harris. Robbie Coltrane has always been terrific as lovable and bumbling giant Hagrid, who has more than a few secrets in his mind and cabin, but is a fierce and strong friend to the children. Helena Bonham Carter is the gleefully evil Bellatrix who took such great pleasure in killing Sirius Black a few films ago we have been quietly waiting for the moment when she gets hers…and she does. So good is Carter in the role I could not help smiling when she met her end. Best of all has always been Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, as the actor seems to have an innate understanding of the character and what is required to portray him. Watch his movements and the manner in which he spews his lines out like toxic venom. Quietly terrifying, his rages take on a whole new meaning to volcanic rage because they are so infrequent to us. Fiennes could be a dark horse favorite for an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor.
How tremendously great it was to see Neville Longbottom, long a friend of the kids, long a bumbler and fainter, and someone always getting himself into all sorts of goofy troubles, emerge as sword wielding warrior defending Hogwarts to the end. Who expected that? Watching him way back in the first film is like seeing Clark Kent and then in this last film seeing him as Superman…great fun. Once again the creation of the world Harry and his friends and enemies inhabit is extraordinary, as the camera sweeps and swoops its way around Hogwarts capturing the war superbly, which also gives way to some deep sadness when we see the destruction of parts of the children’s beloved school, their second home really. That they fight so valiantly for it gives some indication of just what it means to each of them. And the epilogue from the book?
Yes it is here, and brings the film to a bittersweet conclusion just as it did the book. We know the moment we see the characters nineteen years after that this really is the end of it all, and there are no more Harry Potter films coming, which is rather sad. If I have one quibble with the film it is the make-up used on the actors to age them nineteen years, or should I say the lack of it? They really do not look much different, though some cgi work may have been attempted to allow them to look older. Perhaps the filmmakers were trusting in the audience to suspend their disbelief and just accept them older rather than having to show us they were older. It was a minor quibble with such a fantastic film. A fitting end to a terrific series, one of the year’s best films thus far and one of the very best of the Potter series.
It is only fair, before starting my review of the eighth and final installment of this monumentally successful saga, to admit upfront that I don’t have the connection to the Harry Potter series that my peers have shared. Far from disliking them, I wish I could feel the way that my colleagues Anna and John do about these stories. There is something special about the impact that Potter has had on a generation for the last ten years, and even a non-devotee like me felt a small pang of loss when seeing the end credits of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
The director, David Yates, is well aware of his helming of the end of an era, and plays up that emotional element of the film from the start, with an explosive jolt before settling on the eerie Dementors descending upon a grey, colorless Hogwarts in an effectively atmospheric set-up. “This Is It,” he’s practically shouting at us, “All Bets Are Off!” Beginning with Harry, Ron and Hermione continuing their search for the last of the Mystical Plot Coupons, nearly every character that hasn’t died in the previous films (actually, even a few that have) all return for a massive final battle that determines the fate of the wizarding world forever.
And the long-awaited, massive climax that is this entire concluding film is…fine, I guess. I’m really not sure how else to describe it other than perfectly adequate, if flawed, and not entirely deserving of the immense praise heaped on it by even the mainstream press. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it falls short of greatness, but I would single out a few major problems:
- The final battle itself is sort of a letdown. For all its buildup, there’s not much that I didn’t see before in other films when it actually got going, especially the old trope of popular characters “squaring off” and having their big moments of glory, which isn’t necessarily damnable by itself…and yet there’s also a disappointing paucity of ideas within its own universe. One would think that such a massive skirmish among sorcerers would involve more than bolts of lightning and “force push” spells. Am I wrong? How come the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort looked almost exactly the same as the duel they had in Goblet of Fire, sans the outcome?
- Yates, like the majority of directors to tackle a Potter film, is way too beholden to the source material to make it translate organically. Yes, I know I harp on this argument constantly, but in this case I have always been annoyed at how seemingly all the films crammed tons of subplots and Red Herrings just because they’re in the books, especially since the result is an often cluttered story (the only one that mostly avoided this was The Prisoner of Azkaban, still my favorite of the series). It’s a little better here, but not by much. It’s apparent – to me at least – that many of the dramatic arcs (especially the romantic ones) were not fleshed out enough to have a powerful impact by the end. But worst of all was the craven decision to faithfully include that horrid epilogue and add insult to injury with some of the worst aging makeup I have ever seen.
- The technical aspects of this installment are inconsistent. Eduardo Serra’s ghostly cinematography is lovely, and the great Stuart Craig, who has been the production designer on every single Potter film, still manages some damn impressive set pieces. But Alexandre Desplat – one of my favorite working composers – is on autopilot here, and for every breathtaking special effect (the dragon, the Hogwarts shield) there’s a clunky one (the stone guards, the fiery room).
Thankfully, the final film is the shortest of the octalogy, and it also (inevitably) has a sense of urgency never before seen. Screenwriter Steve Kloves does a good job of keeping a brisk pace while allowing requisite amounts of breathing time for character development and portentousness. This alone makes it a great deal better than the drawn-out Deathly Hallows : Part 1 (my least favorite of the films by far), though I still maintain Deathly Hallows would have been better off as a single 3+ hour epic.
There are plenty of other good, actually great things about Deathly Hallows : Part 2. I completely agree with John’s description of it as a delightful “who’s who of the British acting world,” and I would go further and declare it the finest Potter cast ever assembled. While I never believed that the three young leads – Radcliffe, Grint and Watson – were that great as actors, they are all doing arguably the best work of their careers and should be commended for it. Even the actors in small cameos treat their short screen time with admirable earnestness. If I had to choose a standout, Alan Rickman is exceptional as the tragic Severus Snape. The demand from fans to get him an Academy Award nomination is completely understandable.
I’m sure some of you will be incensed at my review, which is certainly harsher than most, so I’ll end it by saying that, as a non-fan, I did like this movie and I do not begrudge its staggering financial success. But it would be nice if people toned down the hyperbole a bit and looked at Deathly Hallows: Part 2 for what it is: a tender, imperfect but stirring good-bye to a decently entertaining series of films.