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Film Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011; Directed by David Yates)

And so, it all ends with not silvery Patronus but with a misfiring wand.

It’s Harry who does the killing around here!

I’m not entirely sure who to blame for my mild disappointment at the concluding film of the Harry Potter cinematic saga. Perhaps I should blame director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves, whose multi-film compression of J.K. Rowling’s furiously busy and detailed plots and characters was always going to have negative consequences when it came time for the final narrative throes. Perhaps I should blame Rowling herself for constructing the arc of the closing chapter as a give-and-take between spectacular white-knuckle magic-action sequences and interminably talky exposition before indulging in a mawkish denouement of epically-miscalcuated proportions. Perhaps I should blame myself for overpraising the exquisite visual craftsmanship of the last few films and building my own expectations so high when I knew full well what sort of interminable and mawkish conclusion Rowling had waiting for me. Whoever’s fault it is, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 wasn’t quite magic to me.

Which isn’t to say it was anywhere near all bad. Written with dramatic verve, directed with vision and an eye for spectacle, and acted with steely-eyed Brit conviction, Deathly Hallows – Part 2 has more than its fair share of the impressive. The sombre evocation of the common British cultural memory of the Blitz, so integral to the admittedly much more interesting first part of Deathly Hallows, continues into this second part, especially in the darkened, besieged Hogwarts, which has more foreboding atmosphere than in any film since Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban. Whether Rowling intended to harken back to Britain’s stiff-lipped resistance against Hitler or not in her books, there’s little doubt that Yates and Kloves intend to in their films, and it gives the material some haunting gravitas it might otherwise not have had.

Some of the action sequences work well as pure spectacle, as well. Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s daring raid on the Goblin Bank of Wobblecolumns in search of one of Voldemort’s hidden Horcruxes (magical vessels containing his soul, which they have to destroy in order to kill him, by the way, just in case the films’ proscribed description didn’t quite stick in your head) kickstarts the film in relative style. Involving a Polyjuice disguise, dangerously multiplying treasure, an abused albino dragon, and hordes of treacherous, hooked-nose, vaguely anti-Semitic goblins, the destructive escape from the bank quite nearly leaps off the screen as it does so completely does off of Rowling’s page.

Victory for Upfish!

Even the large-scale, effects-heavy Battle of Hogwarts has its rousing and impressive moments, such as a tense broomstick-aided escape from a magical inferno in the object-strewn Room of Requirement (the fire morphs into threatening animal forms, like the galloping horse-headed flood in The Fellowship of the Ring) and the destruction of a Horcrux in the Chamber of Secrets featuring a liquid image of Voldemort dissolving into cascade of water that soaks Ron and Hermione (who then ickily oblige Potterheads everywhere by snogging like fiends). The oddly anticlimactic final dust-up between Harry and the serpentine Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, working hard at being evil but looking like a snake that just devoured a gopher in his poorly-fitting black robes) is actioned-up almost beyond recognition, but that’s an improvement over the book, in which Rowling has her hero vanquish his nemesis (and her audience) with brain-numbing exposition.

There’s some strong non-CGI-excitement elements of note, too. Yates and Kloves totally nail the backstory of Snape and Lily Potter in a pretty and confidently melodramatic Flashback Bowl montage, allowing the incomparable Alan Rickman to actually emote at last. Grey Dead Harry’s interview with Dumbledore the White (Michael Gambon, much missed) in a spectral version of King’s Cross Station contains a higher concentration of gnomic Dumbledore-isms than anywhere else in the movies, even if it provides nothing resembling an answer for how Harry is allowed to come back from the dead. Most of the personal moments between the central trio of friends remain nicely underplayed, including Harry’s decision concerning the incredibly powerful Elder Wand in the denouement. And even if there are far too many cameos by far too many beloved characters for any of them to have much impact (David Thewlis’ sad and doomed Remus Lupin and Helena Bonham Carter’s twisted pixie of nastiness Bellatrix Lestrange get particularly short shrift), some of them have some a nice line or two, including Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, Devon Murray as Seamus Finnigan (has he made anyone laugh since, like, the second film?), David Bradley’s Argus Filch, Kelly Macdonald as the ghost of Helena Ravenclaw, and the suddenly-hot Matthew Lewis as stealth badass Neville Longbottom.

But every enervated moment in this film seems to have an oddly limp and underwhelming one to match it. The serious tone takes its toll on the essential likable spirit of this world and its characters, illustrating Rowling’s central mistake of taking a delightfully comic and cleverly fantastic twist on the British boarding school novel genre and transforming it into a ponderously Manichean moral epic of Tolkien-like proportions. When even Fred and George (James and Oilver Phelps) can’t wring a chuckle out of the proceedings, things have gotten far too heavy. The corollary of this overheated us vs. them nonsense is a quietly chilling moment of astounding prejudice, namely McGonagall’s imprisonment of every kid in Slytherin in the Hogwarts dungeons for the crime of, what exactly? Being the kids of the wrong kind of people? Not liking Harry? Being Japanese (oops, wrong war)? Rowling, Yates, and Kloves probably think this is all par for the course when it comes to good vs. evil morality, but this kind of wartime discrimination on even the side of supposed good (the other kids openly cheer this arrest without charge, even) is a pernicious idea to be passing along to an impressionable, youthful fanbase.

The Death Eaters model the latest in summer fashions.

Additionally, the Freudian obsession with the ownership of wands and which wizard won whose wand from who gets a little over-strange, especially as it concerns Harry’s youthful foil Draco Malfoy (pale and whiney in the hands of a grown-up Tom Felton) and adult antagonist Voldemort. Even having John Hurt’s stately Ollivander mutter wandlore while gingerly fingering the psyche-extensions of several wizards doesn’t make the obvious phallic quality of it all seem any less bizarre (indeed, it only increases the squirmy feeling).

More scattershot complaints: the spectacle of the nocturnal Hogwarts siege got murky at times, at least on the screen I watched the film on. Neville’s greatly-anticipated beheading of Voldemort’s snake-friend Nagini (the most flagrant symbolic castration in a series rather rife with them) is refigured very poorly, becoming less a moment of brave defiance than a sneaky and desperate act. A brief scene with Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth (an unrecognizable Ciaran Hinds) is retained despite the elimination of practically all of the background information that might have given it a reason to exist. There’s a completely gratuitous scene of Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint stripping off their shirts after a plunge into a lake that grates with its cheap appeal to teenaged girls. And although Rowling’s absolutely awful “19 years later” epilogue was less objectionable in visual form, it remained a laughable conclusion while simultaneously demonstrating just how unflattering middle age is likely to be to Radcliffe.

Maybe, in the final analysis, the strong elements of Deathly Hallows – Part 2 achieve a balance with its questionable moments. But there’s something curiously uninspired about the whole package that I never really felt after previous cinematic installments that tilts it towards the negative side. The fleet-footed artistry that’s been prominently on display in these films since Cuaron’s entry transformed them into something more poetic and nearly transcendent of their mass-culture origins is here smothered by the sheer, crushing weight of dramatic closure.

The reduction of Hogwarts to a pile of smouldering rubble, furthermore, seems like a singularly overwrought metaphor for the end of childhood innocence, much as Rowling’s circle-closing epilogue always seemed pat and saccharine. In these and many other ways (not least of all their astounding profitability), the Harry Potter saga is the defining work of a generation, and the culture it defines is a similarly messy and inconsistent one, at once intricately complex and depressingly simple-minded. A literary critic may cringe at that thought, but it may well be true. We may not all have wands, pet owls, and murderous reptilian arch-enemies, but we all live in Harry Potter’s world. Who takes cultural ownership of it now that he’s relinquishing his claim still remains to be seen, but it will take a long time to fully assess the myriad impacts of his stewardship.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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