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Non-Review Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II is probably the strongest entry in the film series, and offers a fitting code to the saga of the famous boy wizard. Sleaker, leaner and meaner than most of its predecessors, I can actually understand – artistically – why Warners opted to split the final book into two distinct chapters. In many ways, the previous instalment (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I) felt like another year with the Hogwarts crowd, while the finale here represents an epilogue to the entire series. Threads hinted at and developed since the first film are all tied up here, and – isolated from a lot of the soap opera of early episodes – the last in the series provides some stunning closure.

The wiz kid returns...

I think that the movie establishes a lot of what was missing – but didn’t necessarily realise was missing – from the first part of the tale immediately prior. Put simply, it’s the veteran thespians who surrounded the young cast from the get-go, and from whom our three plucky heroes were separated the last time. While the three kids have developed in skill and talent since they first appeared (with Rupert Grint showing the most talent and Emma Watson as the weak link), they’re simply no match for the skilled character actors who round out the supporting cast.

These adult actors are allowed far more room to breath in this film, with Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and Ralph Fiennes all getting more than a few decent scenes. Indeed, the adults seem more acutely aware that they’re appearing in one of the most lavish, beautifully staged and well-handled pantomimes ever imagined – something that the younger actors seem to treat far more earnestly. Fiennes, in particular, as Voldemort, plays up the sort of large ham villainy one expects in a film like this – there’s an entire scene where he seems to lead an army of minions in sadistically laughing over his proclamation, “Harry Potter is dead!” It makes your inner child want to stand up and shout, “Oh no he isn’t!”, but that would likely get you evicted from the cinema. The sheer dramatic weight that Rickman gives the name “Harry Potter” demonstrates he knows that this big, epic fairytale sort of stuff, and that’s why this really works quite well.

Face off... perhaps literally...

None of this is to belittle the film or to suggest that it veers into the realm of camp or anything like that. It’s actually very well put together. The attack on Hogwarts at the halfway point is one of the better action sequences I’ve seen in the past year or so, and the special effects are… for lack of a better word, magical. Director David Yates knows what he is doing, and the audience is never confused as to who in the expansive cast is doing what or why they are. There are a few minor moments that betray the fault in staying too true to the book (several key character die off-screen again), but most of it is stunningly handled.

However, I think the success of the film rests in more than superb choreography and special effects. Quite simply, the movie does so well because it boils away quite a lot (but not necessarily all) of the fat and leaves us with the core of the series – the key ideas that the films have pushed forward about Harry and his world. Like a great many fantasy narratives, and perhaps more explicitly, Harry’s journey has been one towards adulthood. It’s about growing up. So the childish trappings like “the choosing hat” and station nine-and-three-quarters are all in the past for Harry (but perhaps, as the finale suggests, in the future for the next generation), and the magic here is a lot darker, more mature.

It floored me...

Speaking to the spirit of a dead friend, Harry asks about the man’s young child. The ghost explains, rather philosophically, “Somebody will tell him what his mother and father dies for. Someday he’ll understand.” And, in many ways, that’s what this film is about. It’s about Harry understanding. The movie does quite a number on the deceased Dumbledore. Harry’s mentor and surrogate father figure, he was presented in the early stories as a kindly and decent old man. However, as Harry grows older, he comes to see the old wizard as a more complex figure. Hell, I’d describe the Dumbledore seen here as “morally ambiguous”, at least juxtaposed against the earlier Richard Harris interpretation.

But this, the movie suggests, is a fact of life. As we grow up and we learn and see more, we come to realise that those key and important figures in our lives were somewhat more than the two-dimensional heroes we original saw them for. We come to realise that they were people, with their decencies and their faults, their beauty and their ugliness, their great successes and their horrible failures. Realising that the world is not as simple as we once imagined it is a key part of growing up, and I wonder what children who grew up alongside the films will make of it. There’s no love triangle or teenage angst to distract from these grand and beautiful and well-orchestrated key themes, and the final movie pushes them forward with all its effort. I think, if there’s a single reason, that this is why the film works so very well.

Going the whole Hog(warts)...

There are, of course, faults. These, however, are minor and can be easily forgiven. For instance, the movie spends quite a considerable amount of time delving into the back story of a dead wizard. Sure, he’s probably a popular dead wizard, but there’s a sense that all this back story is just being crammed into the movie because it was in the book. It’s just about relevant because it offers a sharp contrast to Harry’s shifting view on Dumbledore (in that rather than realising his mentor was flawed, he realises that an antagonist had more strength of character than he might have thought), but it still feel rather strange to stop everything in the middle of the big finale to explore it. There’s also the fact that the second big confrontation pales in comparison to the first – but it’s hard to top that first action scene.

Though, it has to be said, I was actually quite impressed with Ralph Fiennes as the evil dark wizard Voldemort. In the past films, he’s been a relatively tame two-bit pseudo-Hitler cardboard cutout. Which, to be honest, is grand – sometimes you need a big, evil, magical Nazi bad guy. However, Fiennes actually does a really great, really subtle job on the big bad of the series. Thanks to Fiennes, perhaps more than to the script, Voldemort feels like a character rather than a convenient antagonist or awkward counterpoint.

Going for a wand-er...

I remarked in my review of the previous film that I found it quite odd that Voldemort should so successfully infiltrate and control all aspects of wizard society, and yet still run his operations out of what amounts to a close friend’s dining room. With a bit more space to develop the character, it actually makes a bit more sense in the context of Fiennes’ performance. Basically, Fiennes plays the villain as a child. I don’t mean in a campy, over-the-top sort of way… but watch the performance and you’ll know what I mean. In many ways “he who shall not be named” actually seems less emotionally mature than the three characters headlining the film.

Witness, for instance, the way that Voldie forces the command, “Begin!” past his lips during the siege of Hogwarts. It’s like a child trying to deal simultaneously with incredible terror and anticipation. It’s not a leader speaking. Or the rare moment of empathy from Voldemort when he awkwardly and stiltedly embraces a young conflicted wizard – perhaps seeing some of himself in there, but unsure how to express himself. Given that he showed up at the school to trash-talk his opponents, the uncomfortable embrace feels like a teenager desperately longing for affection – but afraid to show it too much. Hell, even his penultimate confrontation with Potter basically amounts to an after-school fight (he might as well have passed a note reading “meet me in the forest after dark for a fight”).

Don't cry... I'm sure some of you will go on to have long and fulfilling careers...

I also really like the film’s observations about the power of words – which, to be honest, are quite complimentary to a series based around spoken spells. Dumbledore, in a brief moment scene, ponders the importance of words and the concepts that we attach to them. Indeed, there’s a wonderful moment where Maggie Smith’s teacher loudly declares of their opponent (frequently referred to as “you know who” and “he who shall not be named”), “His name is Voldemort!” It’s telling that the movie does a lot to humanise Voldemort by focusing on the names he has taken, rather than indulging the words he uses to fuel terror. When Harry confronts him for the last time, almost as equals, he makes a point to refer to him as “Tom.” Words are powerful, and robbing Voldemort of his power through the use of language is a very clever, very fitting finale.

I actually also like what the film attempts structurally, tying together disparate elements from earlier instalments like the Chamber of Secrets and hidden rooms and all that. I think it gives the series extra weight. I’ll freely concede that some of the movies in the series are quite flawed (and some are really strong), but I think the finale does an absolutely stunning job leveraging those earlier stories into a big epic finale that isn’t alienating of exclusive. Or, at least, it wasn’t for me.

Voldemort would cut off his nose to spite his face...

I really enjoyed it, I must concede. I’ll leave you with one of the better lines from the film, and one which I think sums up the appeal of this sort of fantasy when done at its very best:

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry. But why on earth should that mean that it is not real?

– Dumbledore

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8 Responses

  1. Wonderful review. Can’t wait to see this!

  2. Until I see the movie with mine own eyes, I am refraining from visiting blogs and leaving comments on HP reviews.

    …except this comment.

    • Thanks Andrew! Hope you enjoyed it!

      • Annnnnnd it blew me away. It’s top of the pile for me next to Azkaban and before Goblet. Easily. What a satisfying send-off for the series.

      • I agree – just reverse Azkaban and Goblet, and that’s my feeling. It really is a remarkable accomplishment when you reflect back on it, isn’t it?

  3. It’s no concession that the mid-section of “Harry Potter,” as a series, was downright ugly. These last few have been well-crafted, however. My take:

    http://www.undy-a-hundy.com/?p=1873

    • I actually think Goblet and Azkaban are the best in the series, with the later films (especially Phoenix) in dire need of structure and better pacing/plotting. I do like Half-Blood far more than Phoenix, but is the signifigance of the title (ie his surname is Prince) ever explained? In fact, I think that’s why the last film works so well, because it had to be more tightly plotted in order to work at all. The first two films are meh, they really feel like Indiana Jones… for kids… with magic…

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