There’s a special kind of challenge in ending a story. Talk to the right writer, and he or she will most likely tell you that typing the last bit of punctuation can be the hardest ink to stamp into the page because even though that’s the goal, it also means saying goodbye to characters you’ve fallen in love with. Characters you’ve fought for and alongside of. Characters that have reflected the best parts of you, shown you your weaknesses and made you all the better for it.
We may use stories as escapism, but we have to return to the real world eventually.
There’s a special kind of challenge in ending a story because a final chapter has to encapsulate everything that’s played out in the much larger space that’s come before it. It has to confront the audience and its characters with choices they’ve been avoiding, trials that have been kept at arm’s length, and the lessons of all of the smaller tasks has to be used sufficiently against the most dire of consequences in order to be satisfying.
It’s been a long journey, but in all of those undertakings, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 succeeds with incredible resolve.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has changed greatly since living under the stairs at his aunt and uncle’s house. The little boy who found himself in the Great Hall at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has faced down death in almost every year, and even though he’s triumphed, a larger battle always loomed ahead. Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has gathered his army; Snape (Alan Rickman) controls Hogwarts under his boot heel; and Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) have to return to the schoolyard for what promises to be a blood-soaked homecoming.
Aside from the connective tissue between this film and the previous one, Part 2 wastes very little time in getting to the action-heavy main course. After seven movies, the players are all on the edge of the chess board waiting for the first move with no reason not to set the game in motion. Director David Yates, now fully embedded in the universe of the films, uses that allowance to create a first act that’s patient, but not so patient that you can’t see it trembling in anticipation to get to the explosions.
In fact, Yates and company utilize the strengths of the series to their apex here. Two of those strengths are tied closely together: the luck of a first film in the series being made at a time where great technological strides would be advanced alongside its sequels and the skill of young actors who have improved profoundly over the years as their roles demanded it. While the subject matter of the books matured, so did the computer graphics and the young stars.
Both elements are given equal weight here to build something spectacular. Part 2 delivers emotional blasts the way Michael Bay directs a ten-block radius exploding, and those moments are paired with action that’s shot in a way that might make Bay rethink his methods. Yes, there are swooping, diving, acrobatic shots that showcase the splendor of the battle. There are aerial visions of Hogwarts under attack that feel like living scenic vistas overlooking a theater of war. There are gorgeously chaotic moments of brick and mortar that slam down as thousands smash into one another, but Yates and cinematographer Eduardo Serra (finishing the work he started with Part 1) also imbue the movie with the indie drama-esque images that made the first Deathly Hallows so significant.
Although there are side characters in the dozens to ground the fight, it really is Harry’s movie. Whereas the book laced an intricate group of perspectives together, the film is singularly focused so much so that the audience learns everything along with Harry, Hermione and Ron. In a way, some side characters are given the short end of the wand here, but in others, the changes make the vicious reality of war even more startling and heavy.
Make no mistake. This is the polar opposite of Sorcerer’s Stone. While there are light hearted moments and dry humor injected where it hurts most, this is more To Hell and Back than it is a troll loose in the girl’s bathroom or a three-headed dog drooling on an 11-year-old’s shoulder. Harry, Ron, Hermione, The Weasleys, Neville, Draco, everyone looks weather-beaten, bruised and hungry.
As for a traditional story arc, you won’t find it anywhere. Still, screenwriter Steve Kloves delivers a script that defies convention while playing around with it. After it catches its breath, there’s a quick adventure to go on, followed by another, and then a colossal action sequence that reminds constantly that it’s still present even during the quieter moments. Even during a flashback sequence and a few stories within the story, the pace never loses its momentum as it hammers away and manages somehow to raise the stakes in a world where every loved one is already on the line.
Speaking of which, the realization of internal moments – the mental torment inflicted on Harry as he connects with Voldemort, the revelation of Snape’s true allegiances – are all done with disjointedly beautiful flashes that act like breadcrumbs leading toward information that can’t be delivered any other way. Those sequences are highly engaging, illustrative, and brimming with innovative visual skill.
If there are any weaknesses, they all stem from underusing the supporting cast. Even some of the most familiar faces that have helped the Big Three out over the years seem glued to the sidelines – merely given nods in their direction but never asked to play. It can make the moments they do have ring false, but again, this movie utilizes its strengths well, and one of those strengths is the work done by seven other films. The characters are all so vibrant by now that they don’t all need heavy sections to remind us they’re in the fight. The film could have absolutely afforded more screen time to some of them, but as it stands, everyone is given their dramatic due (except probably for one particular half-giant).
There are moments that act as pure fan candy, the icing on a birthday cake with the word ‘happy’ lovingly misspelled, but overall Part 2 manages to deliver a focused ending to a long and winding road. There’s a special kind of challenge in ending a story, but everyone involved in this production rose to meet that challenge and conquered it with unflinching action, gripping dramatics, and fierce compassion.