Tuesday, July 19, 2011

It Ends With A Bang: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Well, it's over. Now what do we do? For the last ten years, there was always a Harry Potter film to look forward to. And now it's all over. As I outlined last year when I reviewed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, the films have had their ups and downs. Mostly, thankfully, ups. After the strengths of Part 1, I thought we were in safe hands with director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves for Part 2. My trust in them has been fulfilled: Part 2 is both visually rich and emotionally moving.

As with Part 1, since I'm assuming most of you have read the books, I will keep the synopsis brief. The film starts (at the precise moment where Part 1 ends) when Harry and company have finished burying Dobby the Elf. Harry questions the goblin, Griphook (Warwick Davis), about the contents of a Death Eaters' vault in the Gringotts Bank on Diagon Alley. Harry cuts a deal with Griphook that he can have the Sword of Gryffindor if he helps Harry, Ron and Hermione break into the bank to retrieve a horcrux from said vault (a horcrux is an everyday object where the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has hidden part of his soul). Davis, who's appeared in multiple roles in all the films (including Professor Flitwick at Hogsworth), is particularly good here. He is the consummate banker looking for his edge. Next, Harry questions the gravely ill wand merchant, Olivander (John Hurt), who explains the history of the wands Harry has acquired. Both of these sequences are strictly expository, but are evidence yet again of the increasing skills of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as actors. As I said in my review of Part 1, if these three had not been able to keep up their end of the bargain, these last two films, which are almost completely focused on them, would have failed.

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint
The first set piece, featuring a simultaneously funny and scary attack on the bank (which includes a ride on a very large fire-breathing dragon), is just a prelude to Harry, Ron and Hermione heading to Hogwarts to retrieve another horcrux. At nearby Hogsmeade, Yates and Kloves quickly fill in (a bit too quickly) the story about Dumbledore's destroyed relationship with his brother, Aberforth – an unrecognizable Ciarán Hinds (The Eclipse). Harry and gang break into Hogwarts and, with the help of some teachers and other students, overthrow the regime of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). From that point onwards, the battle of Hogwarts commences as Voldemort's army tries to overcome the castle's various spells and animated stone-soldier army.

I saw the film in 3-D and I strongly recommend paying the higher ticket price to see it this way. What Yates and company have done with most of the imagery is to push the visuals in, instead of throwing it out to the audience (though there are a few fun moments when, for example, the dragon's fire-breath comes out at us). This approach does a variety of things: it gives wonderful layers to even simple conversation scenes; it isolates Harry in the foreground of other shots, further emphasizing his own growing isolation from the movement he is ostensibly at the head of; it creates moments when Yates' frames things such as a Dementor who can be seen half on/half off the screen, which forces everybody to tilt their heads to the left to look around the corner to see what the creature is up to. All these techniques pull you further and further into the film rather than most current 3-D films that push you away. It's a great achievement (especially considering that the film was converted to 3-D, rather than shot that way).

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape
As the film reaches for its finale (the big fight to the end between Harry and Voldemort), the film stumbles just a wee bit because, in the big battle prior to the final conflict, several (well-liked) secondary characters are killed off. However, many of these happen either off-screen, or so quickly, that we are unable to absorb them. Yates and Kloves seem to be in such a rush elsewhere that on a few occasions particular plot points featured prominently in the book are now rushed through in an almost manic manner. For example, the sister/brother who are part of Severus' crew and take great glee in torturing students are mentioned by Neville Longbottom (a particularly fine Matthew Lewis) to Harry. But we only see them in the background of a scene where Snape threatens the children and then all hell breaks loose, Snape is chased off and the sister/brother act are eliminated (is there more on the cutting room floor?).

[Note: There are a couple of spoilers to follow.]

But these are quibbles. As with Part 1, except for Rickman and Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), the famous actors who surrounded Radcliffe, Watson and Grint in the first six movies are reduced to tiny or basically extended cameos (oh look, it's Jim Broadbent; don't blink or you'll miss Emma Thompson). It is up to the three leads to carry this film to its conclusion, and really it is up to Radcliffe to finally do it alone (with Ralph Fiennes, of course). It is a final confrontation for the ages when Harry and Voldemort battle, scramble, scrape and claw at each other as they topple from the top of the castle. Then it is down to the wands. There's real energy in these final scenes, and it brings the film series to a conclusion that fans of the books, and fans of films period, will relish. (A brief epilogue is nicely handled too.)

Is this film better than my favourite – Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? No – since Cuaron's film is a great film, not just a great Harry Potter film – that would be nigh impossible. However, it is completely compelling, visually striking, beautifully acted, well-directed (Yates has a particular talent for compressing a great deal of material into short vignettes, such as the flashback to Snape where we discover his hidden bravery), and well-written. I couldn't ask for much more. But there's one thing I ask again. Now, what do we do?

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt of his novel here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com for more information.

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