Spoiler Level: Spoiler-free beyond what you'd get in the trailer, because my girlfriend is the only person in the world who doesn't know what happens, and she hasn't seen it yet.
And so it's over. After fourteen years, seven books (over 400 million copies sold), and eight movies (over $6.4 billion box office worldwide so far), the Harry Potter saga draws to a close with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. While author J.K. Rowling recently announced the launch of a website, www.pottermore.com—which apparently will trickle out background material and other arcana and minutiae—Harry Potter fans will have nothing new of substance to look forward to for the foreseeable future, or perhaps ever. "It all ends," the movie's tagline reads, and to anyone with even a passing interest those words are bittersweet. I attended a late-night screening that began at 3AM, and when the final applause died down, and the credits rolled around 5:30, no one in the packed theater seemed anxious to go home and leave this incredible world behind.
It's a challenge to review Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 on its own merits: not only because it is a continuation of the installment that began in Part 1, but because it is the valedictory lap for the most successful franchise in film history. Director David Yates (now on his 4th film in the series) spares not an instant for the new or casual fan, but plops us down mid-stream and expects us to swim. (Seriously, this is not the time to decide to check out what that Harry Potter thing is all about. Go back at least four movies—or better yet, eight, to appreciate all the countless plot points, returning characters, in-jokes, and recurring motifs that make this film feel like a greatest-hits tape.)
Though I wouldn't recommend the endurance test necessary to follow this advice literally, the film is best viewed, at the very least, as a unit with Part I, so that the strengths and weaknesses of each balance each other out nicely. As a stand-alone movie, for example, I would criticize this installment for giving two of our three leads too little to do, and for spending too little time on the friendships that constitute the emotional heart of the story. But all of that stuff was front-loaded into Part 1, in which we spent a great deal of time—some would say too much—just enjoying and testing the bonds that hold Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) together. Likewise, Part 1 was a bit slow in places, and—apart from a trip to the Ministry of Magic—lacked the big, exciting action sequences that Part 2 delivers in excess.
Viewed that way—as the climactic back half of a really long movie—Part 2 is deeply satisfying. Faithfully following the structure of Rowling's final book, the bulk of this last installment is taken up by two major set pieces that return the story to its beginnings. The first is a tightly executed return to Gringott's bank, which was the very first magical place Harry ever visited, way back in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone. (Side-note: Yes, I too prefer the original title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and it's amusing now to think that someone decided the word "philosopher's" would make this series unmarketable on our heathen American shores.) The Gringott's raid—though played for dire stakes—hearkens back to the more childlike sense of wonder that the first books and movies contained, complete with roller-coaster cart ride, comical disguises, and the most well-realized dragon in this or any film series to date. (The special effects—which ranged somewhere between appalling and adequate in the early movies—have been getting better and better with each installment, and are state of the art here.)
The second, and longest, sequence brings it all back, appropriately, to Hogwart's School for Witchcraft and Wizardry and its now familiar student body, both of which were sorely missed in the last installment. When I read the book I remember worrying that Rowling was not going to get the story back to Hogwarts, and I also remember how relieved I was when she did: it wouldn't be right for the final showdown between good and evil—and the final transition from childhood to adulthood—to take place anywhere else.
I won't give away any more of the plot, except to say that it follows Rowling's book very closely; the strengths of that final tome are here, but so are the flaws: a few too many stops-and-starts to the action, a little too much exposition slowing everything down in the final reel. (It could be worse: the movie wisely dumps much of the more tedious back-story Rowling had not one but two characters deliver from beyond the grave.) The film, like the book, also sends our point-of-view characters off for side missions while the main battle is happening in the halls of Hogwarts, often leaving us with the feeling that we're missing a lot of exciting stuff that's happening just out of sight. (As in the book, some of our favorite characters don't make it out alive and—as in the book, but more so—some of these deaths happen off-screen, robbing them of a little of their impact.) I was also not enamored of Alexandre Desplat's score, which seems to go mournful and meditative during battle scenes when "exciting" or "rousing" would have seemed more appropriate choices.
But these are minor quibbles about what is a breathlessly exciting, truly epic battle that brings the long saga to a thrilling conclusion and manages to do honor to most of the characters along the way. In fact, considering the sheer number of characters in play, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 juggles them all wonderfully, providing brief but poignant moments for major and minor characters alike. Just about every character in the Harry Potter universe—alive or dead—chooses sides and squares off for the final epic battle, and a surprising number—including Professor McGonogall (Maggie Smith), Mrs. Weasley (Julia Walters), Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and especially Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis)—get satisfying "hero moments" worthy of their long service to the franchise. (A few times I worried that one or two of my favorite Hell, Yeah! moments from the book were going to be left on the cutting room floor, but they're almost all in there, and—at my screening—they all earned enthusiastic applause from the audience.)
Of the young cast, it has become common to say, with each film, that they are "getting better," but I think that undersells them considerably. No, Daniel Radcliffe will never be our finest actor, but he, Watson, and Grint have all matured considerably and developed some real acting chops. And, having successfully reached the end of this marathon series, we now must go back and recognize the casting choices, across the board, as a real, almost unprecedented triumph of the much derided early films. With the exception of Michael Gambon's inheritance of the Dumbledore role from the late, great Richard Harris, this is a 10-year film series that has kept its entire main cast, and most of its minor cast—including actors who were first cast when they were 10-years old. It's not just the actors playing Harry, Ron, and Hermione who have grown up in these roles: it's also Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), Seamus Finnegan (Devon Murray), Dean Thomas (Alfie Enoch), Gregory Goyle (Josh Herdman), a host of Weasley children (Chris Rankin, James and Oliver Phelps, and Bonnie Wright), and many other Hogwarts students who have been there since the first movie. That they kept this cast together is remarkable enough, but that they all grew up to be decent actors is nothing short of miraculous.
And that's to say nothing of the exceptional veteran actors in the cast, which is a Who's Who of British acting royalty, including Gambon, Coltrane, Walters, Ralph Fiennes, Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham-Carter, John Hurt, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs, Jim Broadbent, and many, many others. Certainly, special recognition is owed to Alan Rickman, whose Severus Snape provides the hidden heart of this film. There are few "layered" characters in Harry Potter—most people are exactly, aggressively what they seem—but Severus Snape is Rowling's most complex creation. As each book was released, the question of whether Snape was "good" or "evil" became more hotly debated, but the answer turned out to be far more interesting than such a black-and-white view of the world would allow. Alan Rickman has been playing those subtle, shifting layers from the start, and here he gets to finally reveal the incredible complexity that has been at work in his performance all along. It's probably too much to hope for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for him, but—with the most challenging role in this most successful film series—it's not too much to say he deserves one.
Fans of books are never completely happy with film adaptations, but I spent a lot of this film seeing the glass as half-full, and thinking about how fortunate the Harry Potter fans have been. If you think about how your favorite books have been mauled, maimed, misunderstood, and transmogrified by going through the Hollywood process, it is more remarkable that eight movies—by four different directors—have maintained such quality, consistency, and fidelity to the source material. (Even the weakest installments—the first two, directed by American über-hack Chris Columbus—deserve tremendous credit for first realizing, and populating, Rowling's world.) If the films never quite soared to the fantastical or emotional heights of Rowling's books, they also never once dropped the proverbial quaffle. These are films that will live for generations, and if I originally watched them with the occasional grumble (they never quite got Quidditch right, did they?), I will rewatch them with the greatest pleasure.
But, bittersweet though it may be, I'm not sorry to see this franchise come to an end. Towards the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, one character—I won't say which—says, "Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic." It's a line I don't think is in the book, and I can only assume it was intended as a sly homage to J.K. Rowling, whose words (about a million of them) created this rich, rewarding story. It's the writing that's responsibile for this worldwide phenomenon, and—rare though this is to say—Rowling's success is more than deserved. I'm sorry to see the movies end, but I'm ready to let those characters return to the pages, and fade back into the slightly different, more beloved versions I have in my own mind. The movies do tremendous honor to Rowling's books, and I have no doubt the films will live for a long, long time, but they have been an interesting supplement to the endless pleasures of Rowling's work. There, on the shelf, on the page: that's still where the real magic is.
Additional Note: I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 in 3D, on IMAX: I thought the IMAX format (which I love) would make up for the 3D (which I detest). It didn't. Please don't make my mistake: the 3D adds NOTHING to the experience of the film, and subtracts and distracts considerably. I'm going to see it again in glorious, bright, non-murky 2D as soon as possible.