After seven books, eight movies and earnings equal to countless gold galleons, the filmmakers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 could easily have coasted to a climax. Instead, director David Yates conjures up the most spellbinding and dramatically potent film in the magical franchise. No trace of senioritis brings down Harry Potter's final lessons at the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Critics cursed Warner Bros.' decision to split Deathly Hallows into two films as a shameless cash grab. But the two parts succeed so well, it's hard to imagine a faithful adaptation of the seventh and final Harry Potter novel clocking in at less than four hours. Deathly Hallows not only concludes young Harry's coming-of-age story, but the film versions come into their own by improving on the original books.
Deathly Hallows — Part 2 slips in brief glimpses of the Hogwarts Express, chocolate frogs and scenes from the first movie, reminding us how much the series has evolved. Initially, author J.K. Rowling crafted a whimsical wish-fulfillment comedy, with Harry Potter as "the boy under the stairs" proving to be a downtrodden tot worthy of a Roald Dahl tale. Harry learned not only that he possesses magic powers, but that he's rich and famous among other wizards as well. As the series continued, Rowling grew more ambitious, retaining the lighthearted whodunits but crafting darker allegories for racism, fascism and post-9/11 paranoia.
In Deathly Hallows, Ralph Fiennes' fascistic Voldemort rules the Wizarding World while Harry, Ron and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, respectively) pursue their plan to find the horcruxes and exploit You Know Who's one weakness. Deathly Hallows implies that, by undoing Voldemort's indestructibility, the heroes are pursuing his assassination. Quidditch never contained such moral quandaries.
Deathly Hallows — Part 2 opens precisely where the first part left off, with Voldemort obtaining the Elder Wand. Despite the special effects spectacle to come, the film continues on a quietly menacing note as Harry negotiates with a cagey goblin banker (Warwick Davis), the scene's tensions worthy of a British gangster film. A thrilling heist matches the previous movie's brazen break-in at the Ministry of Magic, and finds incongruous comedy as bookish Hermione struggles to impersonate tempestuous Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). As in the previous film, the quips and magical pranks mercifully break the ominous mood, in contrast to the strained slapstick of Harry's underclassman years.
Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves confine most of the crushing despair of life under Voldemort's Orwellian regime to Part 1. In Part 2, the high-spirited adventure and find-the-horcrux goals lend the narrative the quality of a video game as Harry nabs one trinket, then movies onto the next level. Radcliffe's focus as a performer gives the story an invaluable anchor, and keeps the magical fireballs and force fields from overshadowing Harry's drive and moments of trepidation. Growing up on screen over a decade, Radcliffe's intensity has become his greatest strength as an actor: I can't wait to see him play a crazed stalker.
The filmmakers probably studied the Helm's Deep siege from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers as their homework for the Battle of Hogwarts, but they persistently emphasize emotional resonance without stopping the action. Most of Deathly Hallows — Part 2 occurs on and around the Hogwarts campus, so the set pieces take place at big locales from the previous films: the long covered bridge from Prisoner of Azkaban, the eponymous Chamber of Secrets, etc. It's not so much a walk down memory lane as a desperate sprint down memory lane with giants, ghastly dementors and monster spiders in full pursuit.
Potter's audiences are so used to the presence of translucent ghosts and other supernatural beings that it's easy to overlook the excellence of the film's CGI sorcery. The 3-D proves superfluous, however, making already shadowy sequences unnecessarily dim. The 3-D glasses do enhance a sequence when Harry and friends hitch a ride on a dragon from a cavern, through a skylight and over quaint London neighborhoods, with the leathery wings seeming to jut from the screen.
Deathly Hallows — Part 2 gives many members of its supporting cast grace notes and smart gags. Maggie Smith seizes her finest, funniest moments in the series as Professor McGonagall, while meek Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) completes his journey from a British Ralph Wiggum to a dashing young hero. Alan Rickman shines in a series-spanning montage that reveals the secret complexities of Severus Snape. If anyone gets a short shift, it's Robbie Coltrane's hirsute Hagrid, but he stole the early films, so he shouldn't complain.
In retrospect, the first two Harry Potter films, directed by Home Alone's Chris Columbus, felt like extensions of the books, presenting Rowling's characters and places as literally as possible. The subsequent movies provided the mood and texture that Rowling left to the imagination. Yates in particular gave the last four films a clean, uncluttered look while crafting a visual vocabulary for magical combat beyond shooting lightning bolts out of wands. The two Deathly Hallows films clarify the overstuffed plotting of the original novel, so for once, Rowling's book feels like a blueprint for a cinematic epic.
The dark themes of the later Harry Potter books ultimately turned the series' escapist fantasy on its head. The books initially suggest a metaphor for adulthood, with the promise that everything will be cool when Harry grows up and gets out of that Muggle house. Instead, the Wizarding World proves to be a brutal dictatorship with the wrong people in control, as if the Dursley home encompasses all of England.
Growing up leads to personal freedom and the mastery of skills, but also fraught situations with painful choices. Deathly Hallows — Part 2 brings the series to a close on a note of warmth and wonder, but the lesson that lingers comes not from Hogwarts, but the school of hard knocks. Harry and his classmates have magic wands, but they can't make their problems vanish into thin air. Full marks, Mr. Potter.