And so concludes the big-screen saga of The Boy Who Lived.
Aside from this series’ critical and public popularity — impressive in its own right, and with healthy box-office receipts to match — these eight films represent an extraordinary artistic accomplishment.
Exactly 10 years have passed since the release of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” during which time — miracle of miracles — the entire cast has remained intact. We’ve watched the young stars grow up, which added considerable verisimilitude to their increasingly perilous academic terms at Hogwarts. Supporting cast members have remained consistent as well, the sole exception being poor Richard Harris, who died and left the role of Albus Dumbledore in the equally talented hands of Michael Gambon.
I can’t stress how unusual this is, for a series that has run 10 years and eight films. Peter Jackson made all three of his “Lord of the Rings” epics simultaneously, and they were released within a much shorter 24-month period. And while smaller roles such as Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny and Desmond Llewelyn’s Q may have remained consistent during much of the James Bond series, 007 himself was handed down to an ongoing series of leading men, each time forcing viewers to adapt to a new face and — more critically — a new tone fashioned around this new individual.
No such changes had to be made with Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter series, which was enriched further by its consistency. From the standpoint of casting alone, the feat is nearly unprecedented.
Honestly, I think we’d need to go all the way back to MGM’s Andy Hardy series, which generated 15 films from 1937 to ’46, with a 16th “reunion story” in 1958. Mickey Rooney starred in all 16, and the key supporting players also remained the same.
But those were modest, low-budget programmers with TV sitcom-style storylines, and nothing about the Harry Potter series has ever been less than top-shelf. Indeed, the production values and special effects have been stunning, and the 3-D work in this final installment is no different; we can be grateful that 21st century movie-making technology has been able to realize the wealth of imagination present in J.K. Rowling’s novels.
The series also has delivered reliable entertainment value: not a clunker in the bunch. If not quite scaling the impressive heights of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, the Harry Potter series always came darn close … and, with “Deathly Hallows 2,” it has concluded with honor.
Uniformity of vision has been another blessing. Chris Columbus got the series off to a solid start by directing the first two entries; he was followed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell, and then David Yates brought the saga home during its final four entries. Steve Kloves scripted all but one film, pleading burnout and briefly surrendering the reins to Michael Goldenberg, on “Order of the Phoenix.” One imagines that Rowling and Warners must’ve made Kloves the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse, because he returned with renewed energy, each time embracing the increasingly difficult task of condensing the ever-expanding books into economical screenplays.
This is the writer, we must remember, who enchanted us with 1989’s “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” intrigued us with 1993’s “Flesh and Bone” and then earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for 2000’s marvelously caustic “Wonder Boys.” After such an auspicious beginning, and therefore at the height of artistic visibility, most serious writers would wish to strike — with their own new material — while the iron was hot. But Kloves essentially put all personal ambitions on hold for an entire decade, in order to handle Rowling’s vision with such care … essentially becoming something of a loving uncle to Harry, Ron, Hermione and all the others.
My chief lament, throughout this series, has concerned everything left behind during the inevitable compression; sacrifices obviously were necessary, in order to condense an 870-page book (“Order of the Phoenix,” the longest) into a 138-minute movie. The results haven’t always been successful; on several occasions, essential details and subplots have existed only in the memories of faithful fans who already read the books, and subconsciously allowed for their absence.
Uninitiated muggles often hadn’t the faintest idea how one adventure or calamity led to the next; I know this to be true, as I was among their number, having made the decision — back in 2001 — to read each book only after seeing the corresponding film. Somewhere in the complexities of entries four and five, I was hopelessly lost — peppering Constant Companion with numerous questions (“What just happened?” “Who is that?”) — until numerous issues subsequently were clarified by Rowling’s much richer prose.
All concerned finally acknowledged this limitation, and wisely divided the final book into two films; I wish they’d done the same all along. We can hope, perhaps 30 years down the road, that the BBC eventually adapts the books into a long-form epic TV miniseries; Rowling’s saga certainly will remain popular for the next few centuries, and thus merit a second screen treatment. If we’re lucky, we’ll be around to see it happen … although, for the moment, the notion of bonding with anybody except Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron) and Emma Watson (Hermione) verges on sacrilege.
As the previous film concluded, the vile Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, truly scary) had just secured the all-powerful Elder Wand, one of the three Deathly Hallows. Harry, Ron and Hermione were on the run, having successfully destroyed only one of the many “horcruxes” — Salazar Slytherin’s locket, for those keeping track — that held portions of Voldemort’s soul, effectively making him immortal.
As this new film begins, with no pause for breath, Hogwarts has been taken over by Voldemort’s villainous Death-Eaters. The vile Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) — who killed Dumbledore at the climax of “Half-Blood Prince” — has been installed as headmaster and chief tormentor of the school’s remaining students. The surviving members of the Order of the Phoenix — the valiant wizards determined to stop Voldemort — have scattered, their numbers too diminished (it would seem) to be of any use.
The previous film’s best and most suspenseful sequence — before devolving into the protracted and dull “Harry, Ron and Hermione Go Camping” interlude — followed our heroes as they infiltrated the Ministry of Magic, in order to secure the aforementioned locket horcrux. This film opens with a similar mission, as Hermione magicks herself to resemble the gleefully insane Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), in order to gain entry — Harry and Ron concealed at her side — to Bellatrix’s vault at Gringotts Bank, where another horcrux has been stashed.
This is a smashing sequence — quite literally, thanks to a marvelous dragon whose swoops and fire-breath are well rendered in 3-D — and it gets the film off to a roaring start. Frankly, things rarely settle down from this point forward; if “Deathly Hallows 1” suffered from too many quiet scenes, this one never pauses for breath.
Thanks to Harry’s mysterious mental bond with Voldemort, he subsequently realizes that the next horcrux is hidden somewhere within the labyrinthine maze of Hogwarts. This cues the story’s most climactic and extended battle; knowing that Voldemort and Snape won’t let him waltz in and search for this item, Harry rallies the troops for the all-out showdown we’ve desired ever since Fiennes donned the make-up to lose his features behind Voldemort’s scaly, snake-like visage.
Director David Yates and editor Mark Day do not disappoint. This is a breathtaking mêlée involving wizards good and bad, giants, werewolves, massive spiders, Death Eaters and every other manner of creature.
And yet … the clash is mildly unsatisfying, in a few respects. Despite the welcome focus granted several supporting characters — Matthew Lewis’ loyal and modestly dignified Neville Longbottom truly comes into his own, at long last, building up to a heroic act that prompted cheers from Monday evening’s preview screening audience — Yates “cheats” at other crucial moments. Readers already know that several key characters perish during this final battle royale, but their heroic deaths take place off camera here; nobody gets the inspiring moment of noble sacrifice granted Dobby the house elf, in the previous film.
Indeed, the reference here to Dobby’s passing — as Harry puts the finishing touches on the elf’s grave — is far more poignant than the sorrow we’re apparently expected to absorb in eyeblink doses, as some of Harry’s human friends give their all during the assault on Hogwarts. After a build-up going back several films, that hardly seems fair.
This final chapter also is somewhat Harry-centric, with Ron and Hermione largely left on the sidelines after their initial foray into Gringotts. While Radcliffe arguably possesses stronger acting chops, having matured into an accomplished star with the on-camera charisma to suggest Harry’s powerful sway as a leader, this minimizes the Harry/Ron/Hermione triumvirate that has been so essential in Rowling’s books.
Ron and Hermione do have one crucial scene in this film, as they finally acknowledge their feelings for each other; sadly, Grint and Watson can’t quite sell their all-important kiss, in part because it comes at a rather inopportune moment, and threatens to prompt a giggle rather than a triumphant fist-pump from viewers. (Yates should have recognized this, and adjusted accordingly.)
I also missed Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid, reduced to little more than a walk-on here.
Finally — and this is a small matter — viewers who haven’t read the books may get hung up on the number of horcruxes painstakingly discussed, located and destroyed. We’ve been told throughout that they number seven, but sharp-eyed viewers won’t get further than five, between both halves of this film. This disconnect results — as readers well know — from the first two having been destroyed in earlier films, before we even knew they were horcruxes.
Indeed, one of those — Marvolo Gaunt’s ring — finally is revealed, here, to contain the Resurrection Stone, another of the Deathly Hallows (Harry’s invisibility cloak is the third). With it, Harry is granted a highly emotional moment that matches Dobby’s sacrifice: a throat-catching prologue to the boy wizard’s final encounter with Voldemort.
Although such details and issues are briefly vexing, they certainly don’t diminish the overall viewing experience. “Deathly Hallows 2” brings this thoroughly enchanting and increasingly traumatic saga to a rich, satisfying conclusion. When events go full-circle, in the stirring epilogue, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
After which, we’re left with a simultaneous sense of satisfaction and loss: It has been a long, richly imaginative journey, and we owe Rowling, these actors and all the hundreds of production people a huge debt of gratitude.
But it’s over … so the joy is bittersweet, at best. While it’s true that all good things must come to an end — and this series has been quite good — that doesn’t mean we have to complacently accept this inevitability.
Rowling is young, and no writer can refrain, for too long, from putting fresh words before eager readers.
We can hope…
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com
Four stars; rated PG-13, for fantasy action violence and dramatic intensity
STARRING: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Helena Bonham Carter