Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II might be the first movie that is really just a two hour climax. Not only does it have to tie up everything from its immediate predecessor, but it serves as the capper to ten years of ridiculously successful film-making. The amazing thing is that it succeeds in the best terms possible. It’s ties up the stories that have been weaving over seven movies, but more importantly it never misses a chance to go for the emotional payoff. It gives the major characters the ending they deserve. If Sorcerer’s Stone set in motion all of the pieces that would make Harry Potter a success on the big screen, Deathly Hallows Part II ensures that the entire series will be remembered for years by sticking the landing.
I originally thought that Deathly Hallows would not split very naturally, but director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves did it as perfectly as could be expected. Part I emphasized the gloom and the endless journey, rarely giving respite from the despair that hangs over the wizarding world. Finding a natural way to break the story in two, the second half moves breathlessly from one enormous set-piece to another. Even the moments of reflection are intense, because the viewer knows that more is coming in just a few moments. The novel isn’t nearly so double-minded, but it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they are able to find such a good way to distinguish the two movies. They both feel unique, though they are actually two halves of the same story.
The filmmakers also show a willingness to trust the audience. There’s a great economy to the dialog, is if it never wants to explain anything more than it has to. No doubt many fans of the book were annoyed that so much detail got left out, but it’s really the only sensible way to do it. Explanation is overrated anyway, especially in a film. Look at how Harry is able to determine what objects are horcruxes. In the books, Dumbledore has to just flat out tell him what objects he’s after, but it makes a lot of sense to allow him to sense them, since he already is able to conveniently see what Voldemort is up to. It saves the movies a scene of dialog, and it allows it to represent it just a little more visually. This is really the biggest strength that Yates and Kloves bring to the last three films. They instinctively know that it’s more important to advance the story and to push emotional buttons than it is to explain every little detail.
Of course, all of those details are there visually. We come back to Hogwarts after spending all of Part I away from the grounds, and it still possesses that dreamy quality from Half-Blood Prince. The difference is that now everything looks twisted and desolate. Over and over again, we see sets used throughout the series rendered as battlefields. One of the posters for the movie showed the castle burning and battle-scarred. In it’s way, that image is the defining image of the series. It’s exciting to see all of the action, but the scenes of battle all have a mournful quality to them. We’re not only watching our favorite characters brought to the very edge, but we’re also aware that Hogwarts has been broken. In a very real way, the castle has become a character, and we are invited to mourn as everything comes to a head.
The same is true of the characters. Deathly Hallows Part II runs dangerously close to playing like an enormous reunion, but after so many films it would feel weird to not see everyone. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are all given the attention that they require, and there is enormous satisfaction to seeing them finish up the characters they started. It seems unthinkable now, but early in the series there was speculation that the roles may need to be recast as the films wore on. What we see here is the fruit of casting that was nailed all the way back in the late 1990s, which is frankly amazing. The adults come off just as well, especially Alan Rickman as Snape, whose true colors are finally shown in the harrowing flashback that shows his connection to Harry’s family. Snape has always looked to be the type who would never let anyone through the exterior, so to see him so vulnerable is a real treat.
I also came away impressed with Voldemort. Not just the character, although Ralph Feinnes gives his finest performance in the series. Rather, I realized for the first time just how well the movie built him up as a presence. Even when you can’t see him, his shadow is cast far across the series. There are parts in both halves of Deathly Hallows where that presence becomes downright oppressive, like the first time he speaks to everyone at once, causing students to huddle in the corner screaming. The movie may be wall-to-wall action, but it never forgets to dig into the atmosphere that it has at its disposal.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the Harry Potter movies might just be the best series of fantasy movies ever made. Before you protest, just think about that statement. Has any series of movies gone for eight installments without releasing a dud? Not many franchises get that many films. Star Trek and James Bond are the first two that come to mind, and both of them released their share of turkeys. Star Wars worked great as a trilogy, but its status as a six-movie arc is far more disputed. Lord of the Rings is often considered to be a better series, but a lot of that is momentum was dissipated by making The Hobbit into a second trilogy. Even if those further installments are good (and I tend to think they are) none of these series have been able to sustain the sheer consistency of the Harry Potter films. Having watched all eight movies in close succession, at least six of them are truly outstanding. The other two (Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix) have a couple of issues, but are still first-rate blockbusters and more than sustain the momentum of the series. That’s a quality that no other series has been able to match, and it’s one that will distinguish the Harry Potter series as one of the finest achievements in long-form storytelling that the movies have ever seen.
- So wait, if they got Bellatrix Lestrange’s wand, why did Harry need to use the Imperius curse on the goblin to prevent him from seeing it? EXPLAIN TO ME, MOVIE.
- Someone tell Filch he can take a day or two off before he starts sweeping everything up. At least leave the clean-up to the non-squibs.
- In the books, Neville ends up with Hannah Abbot, but because she’s not much more than a name, the movies put him with Luna Lovegood instead. I approve.
- I also approve of “nineteen years later,” both in the book and in the movie. You know who doesn’t like that ending? Snobs and liars, that’s who.
- In a rare casting change, Griphook is now played by Prof. Flitwick…I mean, Warwick Davis. In Sorcerer’s Stone, he was played by Verne Troyer, better know as Mini-Me from the Austin Powers movies.
- It turns out being in Voldemort’s army is even worse than being in the Imperial Army. At least Darth Vader let you screw up before killing you. Voldemort literally kills one of his generals for speaking.
- In general, the movie is good at distilling down a lot of complicated ideas, but nowhere is this done better than with the bizarre nature of wandlore. I’m not totally sure I understood how it worked until I saw the movie.
- I always forget which Weasley twin dies.
- Thanks for hanging with me for eight weeks, folks! I hope you enjoyed watching these terrific movies one more time!