It’s wrong to think of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 as a film in its own right. While the previous films in the series have been just that — parts of a sequence designed to get us here, each with their own beginning and end — the first and second parts of Deathly Hallows are two halves of the same film, and to approach them as separate entities means missing just what director David Yates, writer Steve Kloves, and a host of storytellers and performers have done: They’ve made a five-hour fantasy epic that balances effects-driven battles with some very real character moments, and one that isn’t afraid to have its heroes pay a high price for their convictions.
Taken as a whole, Deathly Hallows is the best film in the series, and that’s because it’s the one that’s most like an actual film, possessed of its own rhythms and ideas, instead of an overstuffed adaptation of a book. The phenomenal popularity of J.K. Rowling’s franchise — more than 400 million volumes sold — has meant that the films have had to exist alongside the books, and as such, they were too often beholden to their literary predecessors to stand on their own. At their most ungainly, the films feel like nothing more than a tie-in or brand extension meant to capitalize on a popular figure in a new way, like a toy or clothing line. Kloves, who penned every film but the fifth (2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), has been made to serve two masters, and the result has been some choppy films that try to capture every letter of the source material instead of merely conveying the central story in a smart way. What makes Deathly Hallows work so well is its double length, which lets Yates take his time and allow scenes to play out with their own energy. The film isn’t without its bumpy moments, which are marked by a confusion that can only have come from the trying to import too much from books, but the size and skill of the achievement here can’t be ignored. Yates has wrangled a massive story from the page and brought it to cinematic life with a grace and power far beyond that of most modern fantasy directors, and it will be his name and impact that are most associated with the series in the years to come. Deathly Hallows is, ultimately, a sweeping drama that rises easily above the series’ humble beginnings to achieve something special.
Since this is the second half of a film that began last year, it can only really be understood and enjoyed as such. The narrative hasn’t been sculpted into separate stories, merely cloven in two. The action here starts in medias res, with zero time wasted on catching everybody up with what’s happening, and the train doesn’t stop moving until the end of the show. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are on the trail of the horcruxes, magical objects that contain pieces of the soul of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who will go undefeated as long as the horcruxes exist. It’s an important distinction that Harry is determined to beat the Dark Lord but not necessarily overpower him. The films have all been about Harry growing in stature and skill as a boy wizard, but the finale is about something much more interesting: the willful forfeiture of power. Harry’s intent isn’t to usurp Voldemort’s throne or rule the wizarding world, but merely to save his friends and family from danger.
A fantastic result of this is the way the action scenes are almost downplayed. Harry and friends return to the besieged Hogwarts to mount a final defense against the encroaching armies of Voldemort, but none of the battles has an official start or stop. Once the showdown begins, skirmishes rage through the night, even when the narrative action slows down or shifts location. There are battles within battles, and fights used as backdrops for emotional confrontations, and barely glimpsed effects of unknown causes. The action’s still engaging, with a mix of smart choreography and winning effects, but it’s never treated as an end in itself. It’s always about what the characters are trying to achieve. Many attempted blockbusters today — if not all — feel reverse-engineered from a few key set pieces dreamed up by a graphics department, but the effects in Deathly Hallows always serve the story. Yates focuses on the soldiers, not the war.
It’s a gorgeous-looking film, too, or at any rate I’m going to believe that it is. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra (who also shot the first half of Hallows) expertly uses rusty ambers and mossy greens to play up the dirty grit of the story, set as it is in ruined castles, subterranean lairs, and imposing forests. Yet I cannot give an honest account of the film’s visual tone because I had the utter misfortune of seeing it in 3-D. This was not my preference, and I cannot stress enough how ugly, draining, and unnecessary the 3-D version of this film is. You lose a staggering amount of light and texture watching a movie through dark polarized lenses, and Deathly Hallows is a film that lives in the nuances of earth tones that are turned to mud by 3-D. The first half of Hallows was the most visually impressive Potter film to date, and I have to think the second half is of a piece. But regrettably, I do not know. I urge you to avoid the 3-D here at all costs.
The film cooks along through the final showdown, and it’s only the ending that undercuts Yates’ consistent focus on strength through sacrifice. (And here I must issue a spoiler warning. Apologies all. Skip to the next paragraph. Read on only if you know the end or do not care about being spoiled.) Harry is able to defeat Voldemort by giving of himself totally, and he’s actually killed by Voldemort only to enter a kind of spiritual limbo in which he talks to the departed Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) before eventually returning to conscious life. And when he beats Voldemort for good, he snaps the wand the dark wizard was using in two, tossing it into a chasm. It’s a simple, clean moment, and one acted with calm but unfussy determination by Radcliffe, and it beautifully speaks to Harry’s growth into a young hero who shies away from the cup of power. Yet the film then abruptly transitions to a future almost 20 years down the road, with Harry now married to Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) and Ron and Hermione also wed. They’re all meeting at the train station to send their kids off to Hogwarts. It’s a disorienting and awkward change, not least because no amount of makeup or effects can keep these young actors from looking like kids playing dress-up. (Wright, for instance, is a sleek 20-year-old forced to look 40 via hip padding and unfortunate hair styling.) This postscript — lifted from the books, it should be noted — robs the film of its chance to go out on its own terms or wrap up the story in accordance with what it had held to be most important. Yates was closing in on a big and just ending that revolved around the pains of family and sacrifice and the way no one who loves is ever alone. Yet the epilogue is a ho-hum write-off in which Harry tells his son that it’s OK to be yourself. What started out as a denouement marked by hard-earned wisdom becomes a kind of public-service announcement fit for the end of a Saturday morning cartoon. The energy and ideas Yates had built over hours and years dissipates in one sad scene.
Does that doom the film, though? Not really. There’s enough here to balance out the shortcomings, and you can practically sense Yates surrendering to the fan-induced pressure to include unnecessary moments as long as it lets him gain a few minutes in other, better scenes. Hallows is still packed with wonderful moments, solid action, well-timed character humor, multiple romances, and a battle for the fate of the world. It doesn’t do all things well, but it does do quite a lot with skill, energy, and passion. Yates’ film can be broadly read as a metaphor for the coming-of-age of its central character: proud and beautiful, if occasionally wobbly. Overall, it’s a sweet and fitting end to a series that’s defined film fantasy for a generation, and it’s how we’ll remember Harry: young and strong, surrounded by friends, and welcomed by a grateful audience.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.