And so the circle closes. After a decade the saga of Harry Potter sees finality with the release of "The Deathly Hallows, Part II." Few film franchises in history have been as successful or inspired as much fervent loyalty as the Potter films; the only remotely comparable series I can think of is the similarly epic "Star Wars." Nearly as popular (if not moreso) as the books which birthed them, the Potter films occupy a special place in the cultural zeitgeist, existing somewhere between the bloated mass saturation of blockbuster entertainment and the revered world of serious, artistic filmmaking. Director David Yates has done a wonderful job transforming the last four films into works of visual art beyond their literary templates; though he stumbled a bit with his first Potter film he's grown increasingly confident and visionary as a director, easily resulting in the series' best work. While the first film's audience has no doubt followed the series to this point, the level of viewer maturity has not grown up the way the books or the films have. The giddy mentality that accompanied the midnight screening I attended truly saddened me, because it pretty much signifies to me that Yates' film is going to be regarded as merely the final nail in a piece of gross consumerism, rather than as the serious, beautiful work of art it truly is.
Picking up exactly where "The Deathly Hallows, Part I" left off, "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" finds Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) desperately hunting down the final horcruxes in the hopes of weakening Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) to the point where he can be defeated. This last leg takes our heroes to the depths of Gringotts bank and back to Hogwarts, where the final battle will be waged. It's a breathless, fantastic journey that speeds along at a frenzied pace, making this the most action-oriented and spectacular entry in the series as well as one of its darkest. "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" is a basically a downward spiral of frustration, fear, despondency, and destruction; there's a pallor of doom that hangs across every hulking setpiece, and several supporting characters find themselves struggling with the idea that they're caught up in a hopeless struggle that's gone beyond the idea of good and evil, where the only real certainty is death. Harry seems less a beacon of hope than a magnet for defeat; the world seems just as hollowed out, grey, and indifferent as it did in "The Deathly Hallows, Part I."
The destruction that Yates focuses on is magnificent and all-encompassing. Under attack from Voldemort and his army, Hogwarts absolutely crumbles, leaving mountains of rubble and stinking pools of fire blazing across its emptied courtyards. The onslaught of the advancing forces is a brutal machine, seen as a force of total and consuming repressed hatred. At times some of the battle scenes in "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" reach an almost celestial sort of immediacy, replete with a bloodlust, hypnotism, and extravagance that rivals the work Peter Jackson did in "The Two Towers." Yates seems to revel in this mercenary opulence; it almost seems as though the cast's exhaustion is felt through the way Yates allows the to tear down the manufactured world they've inhabited for the last ten years. In that sense the fall of Hogwarts carries with it an extra weight and a crippling sense of poignancy; this is a complete dismantling, the very essence of magic reduced to a bitter and earthly nothingness.
It seems tragic, and it is. Harry martyrs himself for a higher purpose; so too does Severus Snape (Alan Rickman.) Death has an elegance in the Potter universe-it's to be revered and respected, never pandered to, and never toyed with. Certain powers are beyond the grasp of even the most powerful men; certain magics are simply not allowed. Walking with evil boasts a danger. Voldemort's main failing is obviously his pride-even in a world without Harry Potter Voldemort is bound to fall, consumed by his own grandeur and spiraling ever deeper into the dank recesses of his voided personage. Yates understands this and stages "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" as high tragedy, one in which loss surrounds and sorrow falls across the land like so much snow and ash. You are made to feel the hopelessness, the anxiety, the frustration, the terror. But also the anger and the tension, all the repressions that have been building and building across several films. It makes the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort that much more intense, despite knowing the outcome-there's a grotesque, seething violence to their opposition, an encapsulation of what each stands for-and allows the actual drama of the final wand war to find its voice and scream its ferocity across every corner of the screen.
For all its intensity, "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" also has moments of severe loveliness and beauty. Snape's death and the subsequent tour through his memories are rendered in a bittersweet, deeply melancholic haze of sorrow and regret. You can feel the pangs of jealousy as he watches James effortlessly woo away his beloved; we suffer with Severus we see the true lengths to which he goes in order to protect Harry and thereby declare his love. As it's revealed that some of Dumbledore's (Michael Gambon) motives towards Harry may be selfish, Snape's are truly rooted in love and a desire to make something good out of a defeated life. The strength of his character shines here, and Rickman plays it understated, with class. For me this is the emotional crux of the novels and I was glad to see it translates so well to film. Yates drapes these memories in painterly, naturalistic detail, trading effects for the simple beauty of trees waving in the wind and a child's lovelorn gaze. It's gorgeous almost to the point of painful; it's a bursting heart hidden away in a two hour flurry of fire and vengeance. Ron and Hermione finally lock lips here as well; Yates plays it down and sneaks it in the aftermath of a mad dash to destroy a horcrux. The pairing feels natural and real, a gravitation of human emotion breaking away from wizardly horrors and strained exposition.
One of the major complaints lodged against "The Deathly Hallows, Part I" was the pacing. Critics alleged that Yates relied too much on epic, massive landscapes and too little on character interaction. This film remedies that but doesn't sacrifice any of the splendor that Yates has so successfully been capturing throughout his Potter films; what surprises me most is how few of those critics remember that the final book was mostly comprised of aimless searches and bitter bouts of exhaustion. In that regard Yates' film was a perfect evocation of the source material; it's nice to see that here, in the final film, he's finally grown comfortable with allowing his film space to breathe and grow without having to worry about running long or losing viewers because of it. A film like this is a double-edged sword for a director; on the one hand you've got a near limitless budget and the ability to make your wildest visionary dreams come to life, on the other you've got a necessity to fit said film into a very narrow corner of expectation with little allowance for true creative license. It's a marvel to me that Yates has made these last films as pretty as they are; while previous directors' entries in the series have been visually arresting, very few of them have been honestly visual affecting. For that alone Yates deserves praise; "The Deathly Hallows, Parts I and II" are films that can stand up against nearly anything released in the last several years as far as photography is concerned. "The Deathly Hallows, Part II" goes even further and ties that visual element to a near relentless whir of frightening, tense action that blows away most of what's been vomited into the theaters in 2011.
As a modern film that straddles the line between art and commerce, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II" exceeds nearly every expectation that could have been set for it. Yates has sent the series out on an extreme high note and it's unlikely that anyone else could have helmed this vehicle so successfully and steered it towards such lofty artistically inclined shores. While there were certainly comprises (another fairly brief run time, unnecessary moments of levity) the overall result is a fairly unblemished adaptation of this century's most engaging literary phenomenon; it's hard to imagine anything like this coming along again in my film-viewing lifetime. Years ago a friend had to pay me to read the first four Harry Potter novels because I had been so disappointed by the first film (I found it overly childish and somewhat patronizing); I'm glad I took the money and gave the novels, and the later the films, a second chance. While the general audience may not really appreciate the marvel David Yates has given them, the few who have actually grown up with the novels in the intended manner will find an intense, deeply felt end to the story that's been with them for so much of their lives. The saga may have ended, but the magic continues.
And the dragon is really fucking cool.