The Harry Potter franchise has been unavoidable for the best part of fifteen years. Since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone as it’s inexplicably changed to in the United States) in 1997, there have been seven books and eight motion pictures. The books made J.K. Rowling the world’s first – and thus far only – billionaire author, and the movies (which range from the horribly mawkish to the interestingly maudlin) are the most successful film series of all time, almost $2 billion ahead of James Bond. So to say that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, as the final film is wordily titled, is a milestone is understating things more than a little.
Some people will be glad to see the back of The Boy Who Lived, others are tearful. What’s undeniable is that this is the end of an era. As Harry, Ron and Hermione track down the remaining horcruxes (non-Potter reader glossary: objects containing pieces of soul) and try to finally see off Voldemort, Hogwarts comes under a gigantic attack from dark forces, and all-out wizard war is imminent.
As is evident, Potter’s denouement is not unlike Return of the King, both sharing themes of death and sacrifice, played out against a number of huge-scale set pieces: swap orcs for wizards and swords for wands and you’re not far off. David Yates – this being his fourth stint in the Potter director’s chair – has a feel for the characters and knows how to handle pretty dark themes in a way palatable to fans both casual and hardcore, both teenage and old-age. He’s able to quickly but deftly draw together legion plot strands, and the quieter moments of HP7b (although there aren’t many of them) are very well-shot, capturing the despair and desperation of our leads. Yates can and should be given a lot of credit; his films are comfortably better than all that preceded them, able to hold onto the slightly cloying, although ultimately necessary, sentimentality of the early books and films without making it the focus. HP7a was perhaps the best of the lot, and that was largely spent wandering around woods and letting the central relationships take the lead.
Of course, it’s these relationships which are the crutch of the entire Potterverse. Harry, Ron and Hermione are now at the point of death, but their loyalty to one another, and adherence to a frankly unbelievable moral code, must come across as unflinching. In part thanks to Yates and in part down to acting, it does. Radcliffe’s Harry remains a catalyst rather than a conductor – he’s the one everything happens to, largely against his will – but it’s apparent, especially here, that this is the point to an extent. He is a stoic hero who actually does remarkably little leading, but people follow him anyway; how much of this is intentional is up for debate. Far more interesting here are Grint’s Ron and Watson’s Hermione, now in the throes of awkward quasi-romance; both are very good, he the scarecrow of the piece (brave but not so bright) and she the tin man (whip-smart but a bit cold) – and, as in Oz, both gradually realise they’re not as stupid or cold-shouldered as they originally believed.
The adult support, which for many people was already the highlight of the earlier flicks, remains superb, if many of the characters are sidelined. Alan Rickman’s Snape is the standout, a fifteen-minute retrospective sequence in the final third the best piece of acting seen in any Potter, and steals the show.
The problem with Potter, however, remains this final third. Rickman’s brilliance aside, it’s a horribly unsatisfying, schmaltzy conclusion to what has been an enjoyable ride, like slowly coming up to a huge peak on a rollercoaster only to find that’s where it stops. Without giving any spoilers away, it’s cheap sentimentality at its worst, featuring an epilogue so candy-sweet you’re more likely to need a sick-bag than a Kleenex.
Another issue is that even though this final book has been split into two halves – a move which was necessary and an excellent idea – there’s still too much going on. The battle sequences, which are very well-shot, dramatically swooping into and out of the CGI’d action, and Harry’s ongoing battle with Voldemort work well as parallel strands, but there are also problems which are resolved far too quickly, mysteries which are bafflingly cryptic solved in no time at all. In some ways, the films are victims of the books, because there is no way to make a film to satisfy everyone without doubling its length.
As it is, Yates has made as good a job of it as you can probably manage within reason. His biggest problem is having to follow the novel’s conclusion, because it’s quite simply diabolical. That said, for most of its two-and-a-bit hours running time, HP7b is suitably frenetic and, well, pretty good. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a film which does no injustice to the legacy of the boy wizard, whether you love him or not.
Verdict: a film not lacking flaws, but whose pace and energy carry it through some fairly large plot problems. The final entry in the Potter canon is a fast-paced, very good action-fantasy film in the main, although the last twenty minutes come close to derailing all that preceded it. The lesson we’ve learned: David Yates knows what he’s doing. Exhale, it’s all over now.