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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the final film in the series adapted from the books by JK Rowling, is concise, rousing and frequently moving.
The end of the Harry Potter saga, like getting kids out of a swimming pool or troops out of Afghanistan, has been an exhausting business. With JK Rowling’s final volume having been sliced in two, the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was long, sombre and often deeply tedious. The following part is the exact opposite: it’s concise, rousing and utterly moving. Watched as a stand-alone film it’s likely to strike newcomers as completely mystifying, but committed and even semi-committed fans will surely welcome it as a worthy climax to the most successful film franchise in history.
The set-up is simple. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are zipping here and there, donning disguises and wizarding themselves into exceedingly poor situations all with the goal of seeking and destroying the Horcruxes that contain fragments of Lord Voldemort’s dark soul. Fittingly enough, their quest takes them back to Hogwarts boarding school although, no longer the palace of marvels it used to be, it’s now an embattled shell of its former self. Aided by the respectable Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), they endure a tricky siege, before Harry has to face off against Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) himself.
Just over two hours in length, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is the shortest of all the Harry Potter films. There’s less footling about and a quicker gallop to the action sequences, among the best of which is the whooshing journey Harry and his pals make from the wizard bank Gringotts to an underground vault where the jewels multiply at a rate so fast the schoolchildren are almost buried.
Later, as they escape subterranea and fly over London on the back of a fire-spitting dragon, Ron screams: “This is brilliant!” It is – the views are stunning, the excitement contagious – and it reminds you that Rowling’s novels were so thrilling because of the journeys they contained as much for the issues they explored.
There are other sequences worth praising for their nostalgic appeal: when, at Hogwarts, Harry leaps upon a broom and saves Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) from a fire the twisted albino has started; when, during the violent fighting scenes, not only marauders and giant ogres, but giant spiders show up. The cast also, a veritable Who’s Who of likeable British character actors – Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, John Hurt, Miriam Margolyes – reunites actors from earlier movies so that they can deliver brief, curtain-call appearances.
Radcliffe, like Watson and Grint, has taken a while to fully inhabit his role and to animate Steve Kloves’s stilted screenplays. He’s a revelation here, unexpectedly possessed by a self-assuredness – as well as sorrow – that befits his character and makes him look like a true leader rather than a well-meaning school prefect. Watson’s tics are brought into relief by Helena Bonham Carter who, in a note-perfect impersonation, plays Hermione (disguised as Bellatrix) with her jaw pushed out, a picture of girly sullenness. Fiennes has succeeded in investing the nasally-challenged Voldemort with an almost touching mortality.
One of the most telling transformations comes via Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) who has turned into a beefy, snake-decapitating hero. The other is Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Now there are many of us who feel that the main issue of the Harry Potter movies has been too little Rickman: looking for all the world like a singer in an East Berlin post-punk band, every second his bottom-clenched, cruel-tongued character showed up on screen was covetable. Here, he’s shown to have a long-standing secret that’s of huge consequence that makes him a tragic and perhaps even heroic figure rather than an evil one.
It seems premature to talk about the end of Harry Potter. The books will always be with us, and no doubt there will be theme parks, apps and countless spin-offs – maybe even prequels, animated series and remakes – to follow in the future.
I’m unconvinced though that the films add anything to Rowling’s achievements: with so many directors, they lack the visual flair and dramatic coherence Peter Jackson brought to the Lord of the Rings trilogy; the balance – between drama and comedy, between quotidian and the extraordinary – has been shaky; they have pick-and-mixed motifs from Twilight, the Bourne trilogy, and yes, the Lord of the Rings.
Even in Part Two, which does an able job at tying up most of the loose ends, the backstory involving Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and his brother (Ciaran Hinds) isn’t properly disentangled, while the romance between Ron and Hermione is laughably unconvincing. The 3D version, needless to say, is an expensive frivolity.
Still, by its close – a wonderfully-handled coda set nineteen years in the future – I was torn between satisfied pleasure and sadness to be taking leave of Harry. The first Harry Potter film appeared just after 9/11; this series has been a companion to the decade, part of its cultural wallpaper, a large slice of many of our lives.
At its best, and this finale falls just short of Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), its whimsical, chaotically-assembled brand of retro fantasy has been a peppy, uncynical tonic. It’s hard to disagree with Dumbledore’s parting shot: “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry; that doesn’t mean it’s not real.”