Barely breaking the two-hour mark before the final credits roll, the eighth and final installment in this decade-long franchise is the shortest film in the series. But “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” makes up in energy what it lacks in length. Before offering a pacific postscript that says peace has finally been restored in the world of wizards and muggles, it’s basically a slam-bang, roller-coaster ride of a movie, a series of epic confrontations that pauses only occasionally for a death, a kiss, or a painful recollection. Spectacular but also emotionally affecting, it’s a fitting capstone to a series that remains unmatched, despite many attempts over the past decade to imitate its magical formula.
Newcomers should be aware from the get-go, however, that David Yates’ take on the second half of the final volume in J.K. Rowlings’ publishing phenomenon is not directed at them. Apart from flashbacks presented as swift-moving, gauzy montages, it’s simply uninterested in bringing viewers “up to speed” on the narrative. Instead it simply takes up where the last picture left off, with the trio of no-longer-young heroes—Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry and his school chums Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson)—desperately trying to track down and destroy the horcruxes that protect portions of the essence of the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), making him immortal and powerful enough to conquer the world. Their search takes them back to Hogwarts, and much of the film is devoted to Voldemort’s massive assault on the school and its defense by Harry’s allies, both students and teachers, while he comes to terms with his destiny and scrambles to save the day.
That makes for a chain of eye-popping set-pieces in which, as usual in this series, the CGI effects are seamlessly blended with the live-action elements and the elaborate sets. But while maintaining a mostly headlong pace, Yates doesn’t permit the pizzazz to overwhelm the human center of the story. The friendships among the students, which in the case of the three stars blossom into love, are handled in effective dramatic shorthand, with one unlikely character in particular emerging as a lynchpin of final triumph, and many of the oldsters who play faculty members (including not a few dead ones) affectingly come into the limelight again. That’s certainly true of Maggie Smith, whose Professor McGonagall takes a leadership role in the defense, and David Thewlis’ Remus Lupin. Even deceased Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) reappears as part of an ethereal sequence that finally ties together the motivations that lay behind, and directed, much of Potter’s journey.
But the other recurring character who ultimately figures most in this final chapter—even more than Voldemort, whom Fiennes manages to invest with just a touch of humanity as his powers decline, and who meets a fitting CGI end—is Severus Snape, the enigmatically sinister black-robed master whose part in all that has preceded is revealed at last. That disclosure, cannily parceled out by Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves, proves as satisfying a denouement as that of Harry himself, and Rickman does an outstanding job of transforming a person who had seemed nothing more than a campily snarling villain into a man one might, with only some exaggeration, describe as a tragic figure of near-Shakespearean dimension.
Inevitably some fans will complain about what’s been left out in transferring the book to the screen, or about adjustments and alterations that have been made to streamline the narrative and jettison unneeded detail. One might have appreciated, for example, more information about the relationship between Dumbledore and his estranged brother (Ciaran Hinds), one of the few new characters introduced this time around, whose reappearance in the fray at the close comes as a throwaway. Hinds is, after all, one of the most formidable actors around, and one suspects that a meatier part for him would have benefited the film. But perhaps then one would have had to sacrifice nice moments with old friends like John Hurt, Miriam Margolyes, Jim Broadbent, Warwick Davis and Robbie Coltrane.
As much as you might admire the veterans in the cast, however, in the end the success not just of this film but of all the previous entries—or at least the last five—has rested on the shoulders of the three youthful leads. In the introductory Chris Columbus installments, “The Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001) and “The Chamber of Secrets” (2002)—by far the series’ weakest entries—Radcliffe, Grint and Watson seemed like what they were, untrained kids going through their paces in a childish fantasy, and barely got by under what seemed a pedestrian directorial hand. But with Alfonso Cuaron’s “The Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004) the tone got darker and they began to blossom, and with Mike Newell’s “Goblet of Fire” (2005) and Yates’ three pictures, they’ve come into their own as actors. The emotional core they have managed to create over the years, more than the spectacular effects, is what’s made this series, unlike so many others that have tried to emulate them, special.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that one should dismiss what’s surrounded the trio, and the array of British theatrical nobility that’s provided not just distinguished but dramatically committed support in material that might have been treated as a lark has also been important, as has the work of the small army of special effects and visual effects workman who have made the pictures look so good. With respect to this last installment, one must single out Alexandre Desplat’s background score, which not only complements the action beautifully but makes artful references to the themes of other composers in the earlier films, and Eduardo Serra’s evocative cinematography, with shots lovingly composed and rendered.
Unfortunately, Serra’s achievement has been compromised by the decision to convert it to 3D format, which as usual adds little and arguably even detracts from the atmosphere. You might want to look for a 2D auditorium not only to avoid a surcharge but to have a better viewing experience.