July 14, 2011


Splitting J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was a risky proposition from a narrative standpoint.  Financially, it was an unsurprising move, but if you have one movie that’s all slow, methodical character development and the second movie that’s all fast-paced action, then each movie could be monotonous because they’ve lost the other half of their story.  Both parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows managed to avoid that problem.  The first part, while mostly centered on wandering and quiet moments, still managed to work in humor and thrilling set pieces.  By contrast, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 is an almost non-stop epic battle that still finds time for the character development and deeply moving moments the series became known for.  It is the grandest of all of the Harry Potter films in scope, in action, and in heartbreak.

Whereas Deathly Hallows – Part 1 was a slow, deliberately-paced and character-driven narrative that saw Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermoine (Emma Watson) struggle with their friendship, their lack of direction, and the ongoing war between Voldemort’s forces and the rest of the wizarding world.  By contrast, Part 2 is a lean and focused final sprint as the trio hunts down the final horcruxes, major characters complete their arcs, and we come to the deadly showdown between Harry and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

At two hours and ten minutes, Deathly Hallows – Part 2 is the shortest of all the Harry Potter flicks, but it feels as rich and full as the best films in the franchise.  The movie isn’t just an endless barrage of set pieces.  Part 2 does have a fun opening action scene where the trio attempts to steal a horcrux from the goblin bank Gringotts, but it wasn’t quite as thrilling as I expected.  But as the movie builds to larger set pieces, you realize that if Gringotts had been outsized as an action sequence, it would throw off the pacing of the other set pieces.  Instead, it serves as a delicious appetizer to the feast of that is The Battle of Hogwarts.

When you have a battle that covers the majority of the movie’s runtime, there’s a risk that you will wear out your audience.  You can only have wizards shoot spells at each other for so long before viewers begin to lose interest.  Part 2 artfully avoids the problem with its tremendous pacing.  The battles are paced so that you really start getting wrapped up in the action, but when matters become too heavy, someone can cut in with a joke or a beloved character can get their shining moment.  And when it’s time to break away from the action entirely for serious drama, the transition is never jarring.

Fans of the books will be on board for the whole film.  There’s one glaring omission in the final battle between Harry and Voldemort that I think slightly diminishes the overall story, but it’s a minor annoyance in the grand scheme of how well the second half of the book is adapted.  Where those unfamiliar with the novels may have trouble is a revelatory montage where the audience’s belief about two characters is turned on its head.  It’s not a matter of “Everything you know is wrong,” as much as a theme the series has returned to repeatedly since the third movie: “The simple black-and-white opinions we have about adults as children become shades of grey as we enter into maturity.”  Harry, Ron, and Hermoine are honest, open characters and we could always trust them and they could always trust each other, but the world beyond them is far more complex than when they first entered Hogwarts.

The revelatory scene and the set pieces both have emotional weight not only due to their content, but because director David Yates has shown himself to be a master of montage.  Montage can be a cheap shortcut to simply show character development or plot progression.  But it can also create as an emotional and powerful experience as any other scene in a movie.  In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Yates wasn’t just showing how Dumbledore’s Army was getting better at spells.  He was showing the bonds of friendship, how Harry has a talent for teaching, how a character like Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) is more than just background comic slapstick.  In Deathly Hallows – Part 2, we have to see a main character’s entire back story in the span of just ten minutes, and Yates pulls off his most difficult challenge yet in regards to montage and the result is a heart-wrenching scene buyoed by an amazing performance from Alan Rickman.

I know I keep talking around plot points and specifics so as to avoid spoilers, but Deathly Hallows – Part 2 is filled with death and I don’t want to ruin the impact for those who haven’t read the books.  What I can talk about in a less obtuse manner are the film’s technical triumphs.  Alexandre Desplat’s score is far better than the one he composed for Part 1 and I’ve been listening to “Lily’s Theme” on a loop while writing this review.  The visuals are astounding and were only diminished by the unnecessary 3D which made the dark color palette even darker.  As he does with the montages, editor Mark Day helps pull together fast-paced, exhilarating set pieces.  I can’t wait to see the movie in 2D so I can better appreciate the immense technical achievements on display.

And I would be remiss not to mention the actors.  As I’ve said in my reviews of the earlier films, we are so fortunate that they same actors have played the same roles from the beginning (with the obvious exception the late Richard Harris being replaced by Michael Gambon).  It wasn’t simply a matter of consistency.  It was a matter of letting an actor completely inhabit a role for a decade.  Some have worried, particularly in the case of the younger actors, that these characters will define their careers.  Few mention that these actors deserve great credit for defining these characters.

Back when the book was released, a friend joked that Matthew Lewis and Julie Walters (who plays Molly Weasley) were probably writing thank you letters to J.K. Rowling for the scenes she gave their characters.  I’m please to report that both scenes made it into the final film, they’re both triumphant, but particularly Lewis gets a chance to shine.  The movie almost seems more affectionate towards Neville than it does for Harry and I believe that’s with good reason.  Harry is the hero.  He was always the hero.  He was always brave, competent, and strong and the real shading he gets here is to courageously and tragically face the thing Voldemort fears the most.  By contrast, Neville is the unlikely hero and even unlikelier leader, and he’s so lovable not only because of Lewis’ performance, but because there’s always the implication that Harry was destined for greatness but that Neville had to work for it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 is the grandest of finales.  It works in hope, love, loss, death, destruction, thrills, and triumph, and does so more efficiently and powerfully than any other film in the series to date. I’m not sure if Deathly Hallows will work as one giant, almost five-hour movie, but I expect that it will.  The individual pieces are so strong—the direction, the performances, and all the technical aspects—that only the pacing would be a question.  But I’m not reviewing that eventual epic.  This review is for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, a movie that is exhilarating, emotionally powerful, uplifting, magical, and a beautiful conclusion to a wonderful series.

Rating: A-


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