Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Final chapter: The epic series comes to an emotional conclusion as Harry Potter and Voldemort have their climactic confrontation
“My childhood is over,’’ says the critic’s 16-year-old daughter on the ride home, and for once she’s not being melodramatic. The “Harry Potter’’ series has come sighing and crashing to a close after a decade of movies and 14 years of page-turning, and a generation must now move on from its defining myth. For the rest of us - the scornful, the uninterested, those too old to fully believe - the films derived from J.K. Rowling’s seven best-selling fantasy novels have waxed and waned, moving from the formulaic fun of the early entries to the darkening adolescent gloom of the middle installments to the grim Wagnerian conflict of the final haul.
The “Potter’’ stories, books and movies alike, have been central tent poles of our popular culture, as critical to a young person navigating the first decade of the new millennium as post-9/11 anxiety and the rise of social media. (Think of all the novels, films, and TV shows that wouldn’t exist without them. Yes, “Twilight,’’ I’m talking about you.) And “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2’’ is a fitting, expertly made final chapter, freighted with hard-won emotions, shot through with a sense of farewell, and fully aware of the epic stakes involved.
It’s an exhausting yet exhilarating experience, good enough to survive the unnecessary 3-D in which it arrives and flawed only in its march to an end predetermined in the minds of millions who’ve committed the books to memory. There is terrific pop storytelling in this movie - not to mention some very fine filmmaking - but there are surprisingly few surprises. That hurts just a bit more than one might wish.
Still, “Part 2’’ is to these eyes a major improvement over “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,’’ with its heroes’ endless existential wanderings in the wilderness. (If you had to cut out anything from the books, why not that part?) The problem with dividing one novel into two movies - for crass commercial rea sons or otherwise - is that you risk one film that’s all setup and a second that’s all payoff. That imbalance is felt here, yet the final installment carries the weight of everything that has gone before while satisfyingly bringing it all back home.
“Home’’ in this context being Hogwarts, of course. (Does anyone even remember the Dursleys?) As Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) bring their search for the horcruxes that contain pieces of Voldemort’s soul to their alma mater, the movie settles in for an extended siege of the beloved school, its battlements finally useful after all these years. There’s a thrilling camera sweep around a nearby promontory upon which stands Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his armies of the night, and you’re reminded once again of why the “Potter’’ books, in this one area, beat “The Lord of the Rings’’ hands down: They have a great villain.
Thankfully, the movies cast the part with a great actor. When He Who Must Not Be Named is wounded in one scene, the soft yawp Fiennes lets out reminds us that this noseless nightmare is really just a vain, greedy little man at heart. For all the CGI light shows and magical whizbangery the movies have delivered over the years, the series is finally about human frailty in the face of organized darkness. Much-loved characters are killed in this final chapter, and watching Hogwarts itself reduced largely to rubble is like being present at the death of a friend. Our affections for Harry, Hermione, and Ron have never been based on their heroic strength - they don’t have any, really - but on their pluck and luck and resourcefulness. “When have our plans ever worked?’’ Harry asks Hermione in exasperation at one point. “We plan, we get there, and all hell breaks loose.’’
That’s a pretty good description of the first third of “Deathly Hallows: Part 2,’’ and it may be no coincidence that it’s the film’s strongest section. After a spooky interlude in which the heroes catch their breaths in a seaside cottage, burying their dead and pondering next moves, the story moves to Gringotts Bank, where Harry and company need to plunder the vault of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). Director David Yates and production designer Stuart Craig give us a spectacular goblin-run institution that owes as much to Charles Dickens as the last film’s Ministry of Magic owed to the Third Reich.
This leads to a) an underground roller coaster ride that serves no purpose but to show off the 3-D (another post-production conversion job, decently enough done I suppose); b) a vision of frenetically replicating goblets and napkin rings in Belletrix’s vault (my grandmother had an attic like that); and c) a stunning dragon ride that takes us from the bowels of the earth to the heavens above in seconds. Right there is this series in a nutshell, its base commercial instincts sitting cheek-by-jowl with breathless, brawling invention.
Once Voldemort presses the attack, though, and the characters hunker down in Hogwarts, “Part 2’’ loses steam in tiny increments. There are surprises, of course - how nice to see Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall get a moment or three in the sun! and welcome back, Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis)! - and there’s some discreet snogging. The producers have located the two actors in the British Isles who haven’t been in one of these things yet: Ciarán Hinds as Dumbledore’s brother and Kelly Macdonald as the ghostly Helena Ravenclaw, her angry sorrow on loan from a smaller, less forgiving movie.
Nor can the craft of the thing be faulted. Over time, the series has come to represent the ne plus ultra of intelligent blockbuster filmmaking, with contributions from every corner of the lot: music, makeup, costume, sound. More than ever, a “Harry Potter’’ movie rests on mood and shadow, and Eduardo Serra’s camerawork realizes astonishing images within the limited palette of gray and grayer. (Only in years to come will we look back on the entertainments of this decade and be shocked at how grimly colorless they were, trapped in a hue-killing triple-headlock of CGI, 3-D, and poor projection practices. For now, I’ll just note that even the scene set in a white-on-white Kubrick-style limbo seems awfully beige.)
By the end of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,’’ you may feel both supremely well-satisfied and oddly unsettled. I’m not sure the movie itself is to blame. This story has to end and end it does, without ever selling out the characters, the book, or the audience. Yet can anything this big - that has taken so long to play out, that’s this entwined with a generation’s baseline concepts of narrative and heroism - ever end as big as we need it to? I doubt it. My daughter is right: For her and for millions of others, this is childhood’s end, on screen and in the theater. It was a long, frightening, beautiful dream while it lasted, but it’s time to go into the wakening world and see what else is there.