|Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes)|
This final chapter of the most successful film franchise in history opened to a predictable record midnight box office, but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two will not be remembered for whether it made as much money as it certainly will. Let's face it: this film could have been a complete dud and still broken into the all-time Top 10. No, the only way to judge this film is against the expectations that its fans have had all along. The fans are legion of JK Rowling's incredible journey of a young boy growing up in new, unusual and often frightening circumstances and faced with a legacy not of his own creation upon which, he discovers, everyone in this new world depends, and these fans ultimately will determine the final film's success, whatever its box office says.
As a fan both of the books and the films, which are most definitely two different worlds with plotlines that vary in key aspects, I entered the theatre (IMAX 3D) wanting to see the Ultimate Harry Potter Experience. I had been entertained by each of the films that had come before, but none of them, I had to admit, completely satisfied. The films, by their nature having to leave out many important subplots, often ended up feeling slightly forced to me, though I could admire their technical wizardry and both the visually magic world and the amazingly perfect casting for which much-maligned initial director Chris Columbus should receive a percentage of every one of these films. Still, when I read that Rowling's final book was going to be split into two films, my first thought was that, yes, they would finally have the time in the movie to get it right. And through the slow, easeful sequences of Deathly Hallows Part One, when so little was happening and so much tension was building, I believed that director David Yates was going to do it. I even forgave him the absurdity of burning down the Weasleys' house at the end of Part Six only to have it completely restored with no explanation at the start of Part Seven because he was getting it right.
And the lights came down and the IMAX screen lit up, and the last episode of the ten-year saga played before me, its brilliant staging and powerful moments made more so by the huge screen (though I must say that the 3D did little to enhance anything at all). The incredible set pieces we have all heard about--the vault at Gringotts, the various pieces of the Battle of Hogwarts, etc., are some of the finest of the series. Tiny moments, like a captive dragon enjoying its first free moment in, perhaps, eons, or a giddy Professor McGonnegal (Maggie Smith) exclaiming as she prepares for a horrific battle that "I've always wanted to use that spell!" or Ron and Hermione (finally!) falling into each other's arms and kissing stand out amid the nearly nonstop action here, and the characters we have grown to know and love through the years all make at least brief appearances, even though this film, like its predecessor, concentrates almost entirely on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson), and their nemesis, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). A few other characters who have been with us all along, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) and especially Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), have their chances to shine here as well, but this one is truly the Harry and the Big Bad show.
To that end, the intensity, the pyrotechnics, the horror, the deaths, and the personal struggle are all ratcheted up to eleven. As Harry and the gang seek out more horcruxes to destroy, Voldemort grows mentally and physically weaker (though his magic is still powerful), more and more paranoid and--if it is possible--more evil. Fiennes is brilliant in his portrayal of a megalomaniac coming apart at the seams. His perfect wand is not working; his dream of immortality is slipping away; his entire world view is breaking down, and all because of one teenaged boy who simply refuses to die. In one telling moment, almost a throwaway, he tosses a killing curse at one of his own men for no reason at all; his mind is so twisted and torn that almost anything can set him off. And when he discovers that he needs to kill one of his most trusted people--for complicated reasons involving making that wand work for him--it doesn't occur to him that, hey, maybe his trusted friend deserves a gentle death. Instead he kills him viciously, with gratuitous (and thankfully offscreen) violence, ultimately leaving him barely alive for Harry to find in what then becomes a major turning point for the story.
As for Harry, Radcliffe has grown tremendously as an actor over the years. It was not long ago that he would have been simply incapable of conjuring the depth that his character needs in this final chapter, in which he discovers a terrible truth about his fate and then must face it alone, in which he must deal with the deaths of several good friends who were fighting because of him, and in which, ultimately, he must become a man (and not just in the five-minute long epilogue that takes place nineteen years later). Three films after he pretty much whined his way through the teen-angst filled Order of the Phoenix, Radcliffe here shows that he has come a long way. Harry is given fewer lines in this film, but he doesn't need them: Radcliffe finds ways to portray many levels of emotion in silence. As he walks through the destroyed halls of Hogwarts amid its rubble and the wounded and dead bodies of friends and colleagues, Yates allows him all the time he needs to take it in and to fight his own horror at what this war has wrought. It is an unexpected and powerful performance.
Most powerful of all, though, is the performance of Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. Throughout the series, Rickman and his character have been the glue that have held everything together. From the children's movie beginnings under Chris Columbus through to the darker middle films and the final very dark films, his Snape has been one of the constants, that scowl and sneer and odd habit of pausing in unexpected places during lines lending darkness and mystery to a character who has, from the start, been cloaked in mystery. In this film we learn a lot more about Snape, and Rickman is allowed finally to expand his range to wonderful effect. By the film's end, he has given us a far deeper glimpse of what makes his potions professor who he is than we could ever have imagined, and if we look back to earlier films we begin to see more and more the layers that had to be constructed to get us here.
In all, this final installment of the Harry Potter series is a winning and most entertaining one, but it is not entirely successful. Just as with every other Potter film, I find myself in the end wishing there had been more of the book left in. But this time I am less willing to be forgiving; this time, with the book split in half the the running time of this second part a scant 130 minutes--the shortest of the series--it seems clear that Yates could have made other choices. Sacrificed elements could have been left in, and these might have added so much more depth and pacing variety to what truly is a nearly nonstop action thrill ride.
Examples pop up right away. In the Lastrange vault at Gringotts, the goblin Griphook betrays Harry, as he does in the book. But why? In the book, we understand this fully. In the film...we don't have the foggiest idea. In fact, the only thing Griphook has said to Harry has been highly complimentary, as he noted Harry's unusually soft feelings for both goblins and elves. Thus his completely unmotivated betrayal is at best confusing, at worst downright bizarre. The entire plot that involved Dumbledore's past has been excised, and very oddly: we are introduced to the competing versions of the legacy at the wedding in 7.1, the Hallows themselves are utterly intertwined within that legacy, yet in 7.2 it is simply not mentioned other than a brief nod at Aberforth's place to the fact that he and Albus had a sister. Without that backstory the character of Dumbledore remains flat as the god-like mentor and we never understand some of the most bizarre things that he does. We certainly cannot understand what is revealed in 7.2 in a flashback, for it is so extremely out of character. The time was there to show this to us--Harry Potter fans surely would not have cared even if the final film had been four hours long--but for some reason Yates did not.
In addition, many scenes are relocated for the film. This is very effective in moving the death of one character to a previously unused boathouse location that affords some powerful lighting and settings. Far less effective, though, is the removal of the final battle between Harry and Voldemort from the Great Hall to the grounds of Hogwarts. In the Great Hall, circling each other before everyone, with Harry's words searing into him, this scene was majestic; it also brought the books full circle, as everything began in the Great Hall as well. In 7.2, the battle runs, flies, and smashes all over Hogwarts, ending up outside on the grounds. It is visually exciting in a CGI sort of way, but it lacks the compelling character issues that Rowling's original design crafted into it.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two is an exciting and wonderful film, and it certainly serves as a fine ending to the saga that has held the interest of so many for so long. Yet something within me feels that it could and perhaps should have been so much more than what it is. It is a strong and entertaining piece of filmmaking. It should have been a film for the ages. None of this detracts from my enjoyment of the movie or my desire to see it again (in 2D this time, I suspect: truly the 3D is pretty much worthless), but what I'd really love to see is the film this might have been.