Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (review)

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And So It Ends…

I noted to a fellow critic at our screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 yesterday morning that it’s sorta odd how everyone is so excited for this movie. It’s not like, oh, Return of the Jedi or anything: it’s not like we’re dying from the suspense of wondering whether Han will be defrosted from the carbonite. “It’s not like we don’t know how it ends,” I said. And my fellow critic replied: “I don’t know how it ends. Does Harry die?”
So there’s that, which I should have taken into account: Not everybody reads the books. I might have imagined that even nonreaders might have at least heard about how the series ends, given the franchise’s pop-cultural dominance. Still, it’s true that the really salient bits are more complicated than “Voldemort is Harry’s father” and “The rebels blow up the new Death Star.” It’s a bit tough to boil it all down to a snappy soundbite.

No, Voldemort is not Harry’s father. (We already knew that.) Does Harry die? I’m so not going there. Especially since I was kinda shocked to discover that if you’ve not been a particular fan of Harry’s and haven’t read the books [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] at all, this could well be the Harry Potter movie to start with (and end with). Because this is simply a great flick: powerfully emotional, profoundly resonant, scary and funny and intense and wholly enrapturing. It’s a great time at the movies, entirely apart from its Harry-Potter-ness.

And if you are a fan of Harry’s… Well, I was not a lover of the previous film, the first half of Deathly Hallows, because it was so emotionally obtuse that it lost the thread. But everything that was wrong with that film has been fixed here, and gloriously so: In the same way that it was tough to follow the plot in Part 1 even if you knew what was going on, it’s all hugely riveting here even if some of the details escape you. Part 1 botched the handling of the hunt for the Horcruxes and spent a lot of time standing around telling us what was happening — or what was supposed to be happening — instead of letting us feel it and experience it. Here, though, even if you don’t understand what a Horcrux is, there is no way to avoid getting buried under a sense of menace, of danger, of a deep and terrible knowledge of everything that is at stake.

There is powerful drama and deep intrigue here, and it’s all of a personal, secret sort. The smallness is the bigness here, even amid some actual bigness. When Harry (Daniel Radcliffe: December Boys) interviews the goblin Griphook (Warwick Davis: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) about a magical artifact of vital importance as the film opens, the quietness and the intimacy of the scene — set in a sparely decorated bedroom of a seaside wizard cottage — is what lends it its menace. It’s not about why the evil wizard Voldemort must be defeated and why the Horcruxes are so necessary to this end and why Harry Potter is so important to that quest; it’s about this one goblin, and why he’s suspicious of wizards. It’s like Griphook — and the movie all around him — doesn’t realize he’s not, at least at this one concentrated moment, starring in an epic story about Griphook. When he says, “There are more than a few curiosities in the vaults at Gringott’s,” the wizards’ bank, by God, you want to know what they are and what Griphook knows about them. Endless tantalizing possibilities drip from that simple statement, so much so that you almost expect the film to zip off in that direction. (A heist of a Gringott’s vault does follows, and it is brilliantly and thrilingly executed. But that’s not quite what I mean.)

Nearly every moment in Part 2 captures a sense of that, of an authentic, sprawling, complicated world full of beings with their own authentic, sprawling, complicated lives.

For the first time, perhaps, a Harry Potter movie feels less like a theme park attraction and more like, you know, a movie. Returning director David Yates deploys some very simple imagery to wonderfully potent affect, such as the army of ghostly, ghastly Dementors besieging a mist-enshrouded Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry — you don’t need to know what these beings are called to feel the smack of dread in how Yates deploys them. The sight of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes: Clash of the Titans, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang) strolling through the aftermath of a horrific disaster, his bare feet wet and red with the blood of the dead… this is the sort of primal imagery that the Harry Potter films have ignored in favor of impossibly less visceral exposition. Nothing up to now, across all eight films, has better imparted the sense of malevolence that He Who Must Not Be Named supposedly evokes in the people of Harry’s world than this brief, sickening visual.

The centerpiece here is what can only be called the Battle of Hogwarts, a sequence that will rank with those of the Lord of the Rings trilogy for making fantasy warfare so utterly graphic and shocking. (This film must be right at the edge of a PG-13/12A rating.) I was blasted back into my seat by the ferocity of it, and stunned by the casual reality of battle it does not ignore… such as the corpses of students lying in the rubble.

But the bits that really sting, that reduced me to sobby tears, are the personal ones. The flashback in which we learn that Harry’s story has, all along, also been the story of Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman: Alice in Wonderland, Bottle Shock) is absolutely heartbreaking, and a beautiful little short film in its own right. And as the film reaches its endgame, and Harry comes to terms with what it means that he in particular has been tasked with the job of destroying Voldemort: it becomes a sucker punch illustration of the intertwinings of fate and free will, of courage and of fear, of childhood giving way to wise maturity. I ached for Harry, learning these lessons in an impossibly hard way.

I saw a 3D version of the film, by the way. The 3D is nicely done: it’s unobtrusive and immersive. The glasses do make sobbing through the last hour or so more difficult and distracting, however. Just so you know.

Sometimes Hollywood — damn them — gets it right. Sometimes they get it so right that they make up for past transgressions. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 isn’t just a transporting movie experience; it isn’t just a movie so effective and so moving that it’s actually better than the book it’s based on. It’s a capper to series that has endured wild ups and downs of quality and storytelling success, and it’s so damn good at wrapping it all up that its past failures and disappointments are all forgiven.

The Harry Potter saga reviewed:
‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’
‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’
‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’
‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’
‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’
‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’
‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1’

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