Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2"

The end is here. 8 movies, and (currently) $7 billion at the box office later, the Harry Potter franchise has come to a close. It's been quite the ride, for both the film makers and audiences. Four directors, two screen writers, and one massive, dynamite British cast have brought J.K. Rowling's magical world to life for the past decade. There have been ups and downs in quality, though overall, it's impressive the way that Warner Brothers has handled the material. And for the finale, they've clearly gone all out, to marvelous effect. The Deathly Hallows Part 2, barring the opening act, is one big climax, and its ends the epic saga with a beautiful mix of heart and thrills.
Picking up with the last few seconds of Part 1, the film then takes us to Hogwarts, now under the headmaster-ship of Prof. Snape (Alan Rickman). Dementors hover in the sky, and Snape himself is introduced in an ominous high shot, framed in a coffin-shaped window, as students march in closely watched groups down below. The first words of Part 1 were "These are dark times, indeed," and it continues to hold true for Part 2. Elsewhere, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are desperately trying to finish their quest, to destroy the remaining Horcruxes, the pieces of Voldemort's fragmented soul that are the key to his destruction.
If any of what I'm saying is confusing, then either you're in dire need of a refresher on Potter-lore, or this film simply isn't meant for you. Now, more than ever, the series has become highly devoted to the fans. Splitting Rowling's final book into two films seemed like a cash-grab at first, but it's also an opportunity to be more faithful to the text, and keep more characters and events in. Being slavishly faithful to source material can often prove to be a film's downfall, yet here, perhaps with a touch of magic, director David Yates and crew have made it all gel together, even if there are still a few pieces of rushed exposition along the way. In my review of Part 1, I said that it would have been for the best if The Deathly Hallows had simply been one very long movie. However, as a fan, and as someone who grew up with the series at the perfect time (I was the same age as Harry at the release of The Sorcerer's Stone in 2001), AND as a film enthusiast/cinephile/reviewer/etc, Part 2 justifies itself quite nicely. It may not feel entirely complete as a film, but considering how much has been building up to this finale, there's a real weight to everything happening on screen.
So when Yates, who has sometimes been criticized for handling the stories (he's directed every installment since Order of the Phoenix) with perhaps too much efficiency, reaches the final battle at Hogwarts, he (and all involved in the massive production) delivers like his life depended on it. Impressively staged, the Battle of Hogwarts is notable for its absence of typical summer-movie bombast. Hogwarts' beautiful Gothic campus is brought nearly to ruin, yet there's a lack of exploitation and indulgence in how it's handled. Even with buildings crumbling, trolls and stone soldiers fighting, and spells flying, the film never grinds to a halt just to show you spectacle. Characters are the center here, and the film never forgets that. The effect can be almost underwhelming at first, but as it moves on, it proves to be a wise decision, and helps the tremendous struggle and sorrow of all of the fighting ring true. The special effects, the series' best, are stunning in their own right, but they feel truly magnificent because they are always part of the story, always in the presence of flesh-and-blood characters.

And it's these characters that have always made the Potter saga worth sticking with. However, whereas Part 1 was more intimately focused on Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Part 2 finds itself on another trio: Harry, Snape, and Lord Voldemort. Whatever his faults, Daniel Radcliffe has finally come of age in the title role, delivering career-best work as his character is taken through the exhausting final stages of his epic journey. Playing off of him with palpable malice is Ralph Fiennes as infinitely evil Voldemort. By playing up the Dark Lord's feelings of desperation as each Horcrux is destroyed, Fiennes is given more to work with, giving his character one more dimension in his final bow. But the movie, for all of its acclaimed British talent, ultimately belongs to Rickman, as the ambiguously-allied Snape. Rickman's work throughout the series has been impeccable, a pitch-perfect embodiment of the character who could be used for menace and dark comedy in equal measure. And, like Fiennes, he too is given an extra angle to his role this time around, in an extended flashback sequence that ranks among the series' best acted scenes. Other roles are all filled out nicely, though some get precious little time (Emma Thompson and Jim Broadbent). Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, however, does get several small moments to shine, a welcome return for a character seemingly sidelined for the past few films, and Kelly Macdonald shines in a brief role as the daughter of Rowena Ravenclaw (the founder of one of Hogwarts' four houses).
In terms of production, the Potter films have always been lush, but here Warner Brothers seems to have spared no expense, and every cent of the budget is up on screen, to glorious effect. I didn't think it was possible, but the series looks even richer, thanks to outstanding work by production designer Stuart Craig, and gorgeous cinematography from Eduardo Serra. And Alexandre Desplat, tasked with scoring duties once again, brings some of the best musical contributions to the series', all while throwing in perfectly placed nods to John Williams' iconic original themes. Creating the world and atmosphere has always been an important part of telling Rowling's stories, and Part 2 has made sure that the series goes out with a stunningly rendered 'bang'.
So then, does it really matter that Part 2 technically isn't a complete film? Does this lessen its artistic and cinematic merit? Surprisingly, no. By taking the enormous amount of "stuff" that happens in Rowling's novel and giving it breathing room, the story emerges richer than ever. It may lack a proper beginning, but Part 2 certainly has an ending, one that is rich with character and heart, despite being heavily infused with sorrow and loss. In sparing nothing, and by going big, The Deathly Hallows Part 2 reaches emotional highs that I doubt it would have reached were it confined to one film. This is the end of both 10 years of books, and 10 years of film making. This is the end of a story that made a generation (and their parents) fall in love with an incredible world, both on page and on screen. And so, as far as endings go, it's only fitting that a massive story be filmed in a massive way, even if it does mean more money for the studio behind it all. Being faithful to source material doesn't have to result in stiff, sluggish cinema. When handled with true craftsmanship and care, it can rise far, far, above, and become something magical.

Grade: B+

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