Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon ~ Writer: Steve Kloves ~ Director: David Yates
Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)
The Low-Down: The lavish finale to one of the biggest franchises of recent times, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 plays with massive stakes and wins big, delivering a fine ending to the Deathly Hallows story and an emotional send-off for the Potter franchise as a whole, as well as being a superbly made film in its own right.
What’s it About?: Things are looking bleak for teenage wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends: the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has acquired the most powerful wand ever to exist and the forces of darkness are closing in. Harry’s only option is to complete his task of locating and destroying the Horcruxes, magical artefacts protecting the Dark Lord’s soul: a mission that will involve a daring bank heist, deadly duels and an all-out war on the grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, culminating in a final conflict with Voldemort himself. It all ends here…
The Story: (WARNING: No story details in this review will come as a surprise to fans of the book, but anyone who’s managed to stay unspoiled for the last four years may want to tread carefully…)
Let’s make no mistake here: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 is a Big Deal.
A lot of films get branded as “event movies” these days; generally, it’s little more than marketing rhetoric, designed to add unwarranted cultural justification to the latest identikit special-effects showcase. Naturally, Warner Bros has been hyping David Yates’ film to the rafters as well, but in this case, its reputation would have preceded it anyway. It’s the direct follow-up to one of 2010’s most successful movies and an adaptation of the fastest-selling novel of all time. It’s also the finale to a cross-media franchise that has produced the highest-grossing film series of all time, one that has been gradually building to this point of payoff for the last decade. It all comes down to this.
No pressure then, Mr Yates? Judging from the finished product, the answer seems to have been: no, not really. The weight of expectation may have been high, but brush away the hype and you find that Deathly Hallows Part 2 is rock-solid enough to withstand it all. A surprisingly different beast from the quietly excellent Deathly Hallows Part 1, the final Potter is a splendidly-mounted production that knows just how to wrangle its sprawling, challenging source material into something manageable, blending complex lore and grand spectacle with sincere emotion and sombre reflection. It’s reverential enough to please the diehards, while being broad and entertaining enough to convince as a genuine cross-demographic crowd-pleaser. Yates is juggling with an unprecedented number of balls here, yet manages to keep almost all of them in the air, in a way that rarely feels like a great strain.
It could have all turned out so different. I’ll admit to having been hugely sceptical when Warner Bros announced in 2009 their plans to divide JK Rowling’s final Potter tome into two parts, a decision I feared had been made for all the wrong reasons. After all, previous films had done a terrific job of condensing breezeblock-sized tomes such as Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix to manageable lengths; opting against taking the pruning shears to the (admittedly far denser) Deathly Hallows could have ended up as a creative and commercial indulgence, a formless maelstrom of needlessly-included material and meandering pacing. Indeed, such criticisms were aimed by a minority of critics at last year’s Deathly Hallows Part 1, but seeing both halves of the story goes a long way to dismissing these concerns. Part 1 was an equally handsome, well-executed production, but it was burdened by the majority of the book’s expositional heavy lifting and slower, uncinematic passages; as a result of its predecessor’s work, Part 2 is able to give a proper account of the truly climactic and conclusive elements of the story, which are delivered with enough scale, gravitas and forward impetus as to make the entire split feel justified.
Admittedly, there are hiccups along the way. As a film that’s exclusively interested in endings, it’s perhaps predictable that it has trouble finding a way to start, throwing the audience right into the momentum stream of the previous instalment’s finale in a way that’s somewhat disorienting. Deathly Hallows 2 is weakest in an opening half-hour that really doesn’t fit any conventional ideas of a “beginning”; the Gringotts bank raid sequence, though wonderfully realised, has the feel of a loose end from Part 1, while the subsequent meeting with Aberforth Dumbledore (Ciaran Hinds) comes across as a vestigial element from the book, condensing Rowling’s revelations about the hidden past of Michael Gambon’s Albus Dumbledore to the point of inconsequentiality.
Yet once the action returns to Hogwarts in preparation for the all-out war that closes the novel, the film finds its climactic identity, drawing in iconography from the preceding seven films to create lines of symmetry extending through the entire series. The opening Chris Columbus-helmed Potter entries don’t always get a lot of credit, but they did a fairly stellar job of creating a solid architecture within which the more adventurous later films could safely experiment; Deathly Hallows Part 2 clearly recognises this, and spends much of its running time nostalgically venerating that architecture or cathartically dismantling it. The epic good-vs-evil conflict represented by the Battle of Hogwarts is grand enough on its own, but by setting these events against a backdrop of familiar locations such as the Great Hall and the Quidditch stadium falling to ruin, the film is given an easy shorthand method of evoking the end of an era, one that it does not waste. Credit must also go to Alexandre Desplat, returning to scoring duties from Part 1, who makes the sensible decision this time to complement his own accomplished compositions with some of John Williams’ most iconic melodies, restoring a musical consistency to the series that had been on the wane.
Of course, there’s more to this series’ lore than castles and chord progression, and while it can’t be said that Yates makes maximum use of the human players in the Harry Potter legend, it’s arguable that he doesn’t need to. After all, Potter is uniquely able to demand anything it requires from the cream of British acting talent – even if “anything” means “nothing” in many cases. Heavyweights such as Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Emma Thompson and Miriam Margolyes are essentially reduced to roles as glorified extras, present only to serve the series’ overall continuity, though the adult cast retains some standouts: notably Alan Rickman, whose Professor Snape delivers one of the most emotionally important moments of the series, and Ralph Fiennes, cutting loose as a Voldemort who becomes tangibly more volatile as his immortal power gradually ebbs away. However, the true lynchpins of Deathly Hallows Part 2 cast are its youngest members, vindicating the remarkable gamble of founding its entire future success of the franchise on the development of a gang of unknown pre-teen actors. Complaints can always be made, but seeing the way Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Matthew Lewis and especially Daniel Radcliffe have come to occupy and embody Rowling’s characters, it’s hard to see how the choices made back in 2001 could have been paid off significantly better.
In the final reckoning, and once the surprisingly effective epilogue scene has faded away, it’s this pleasing correlation between risk and reward that resonates most strongly. The Harry Potter films could have easily ended up as a creatively compromised series of cash-ins; instead, Warner Bros utilised the power of the brand to mount an unprecedented experiment in serialised cinematic narrative, hiring the industry’s best talent to tell a seven-year story in (more or less) real time, while betting millions of dollars on untested children and the outcome of a story that they didn’t even know the ending to when they committed to the project. In an increasingly sterile, risk-averse Hollywood environment, that’s a hell of a bet to make; as critical plaudits and record box-office takings roll in for Deathly Hallows Part 2, it can be concluded that it’s paid off handsomely. Whether we’ll ever see anything like it again is unclear; whether this model could ever produce the same success of Potter is unlikely. The long-term legacy of the Harry Potter movies will only become clear in the coming decades; for now, it’s just worth enjoying the end of a not-always smooth but ultimately satisfying ride.
The Verdict: It’s not easy to bring closure to ten years of swirling plotlines and weighty expectations to a close, but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 pulls it off with a minimum of fuss, delivering a satisfying adaptation of a challenging book and hitting all of its climactic marks, while skimping on none of the humour and heart that’s given the series its spark.