A decade later Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), have become powerful adult wizards while the actors are now stars. Look closely and you can see the beard inching along Harry’s, or rather Daniel's pale chin. Meanwhile, Emma, smoldering in bruising dark lipstick on the cover of the July Vogue, has her own hair and makeup artist, and the director, David Yates, even trains the camera on her generous peekaboo cleavage. Just as startling is the transformation of Rupert Grint who, in one early, anxious scene wears a goatee and a panicked look that together suggest a junior Paul Giamatti. My, how the children have grown — and the movies too.
It’s taken two of them to translate J K Rowling’s last, exhausting tome. A long windup to the new one’s big-bang finale, Part 1 was memorable for the death of the house elf Dobby and less so for the draggy scenes of Harry, Hermione and Ron hiding and quarreling in the wild. There’s no time for adolescent angst in war. Now, when a student (he who shall not be named so as not to ruin the fun) declares his affection for another — the air electric with fire, frenzy and young love (if never lust) — it’s because, as he says, both may soon be dead. Fans of the books know how it turns out, and moviegoers can guess. Meanwhile, this declaration, especially given the casualties to come, may fill you with feeling and also make you cry.
I did, partly because it’s been unexpectedly moving growing older with these characters and actors perhaps simply because it’s invariably poignant watching children become adults. However uneven they were at the start, the three young leads were irresistible simply because they were so young, unformed and vulnerable (like their characters). Emma was the most assured, while Rupert was the natural (and still is). Daniel, button-cute, capable, opaque, was tougher to warm up to. But it’s pointless to think of anyone else. He became Harry, Harry is him and Daniel's depthless quality now seems right for a character who, in the books and movies, was never as interesting as the magical world he revealed to us.
He has evolved enough as a performer that he makes a steady hub for the busily spinning parts, even as Emma and Rupert, whose characters are drifting toward their fate, have less to do. All three have nice moments in this movie, but it’s the older adults who take center stage. Much has rightly been made over the years about how the franchise became a platform for some of the best British actors working, a truism that brought it force and gravity as one after another great — Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs — stepped up, often wonderfully. Here it’s Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman who give the master class in acting.
As Lord Voldemort, the evil wizard who could not be named for ages but has been for a while, Ralph has been part of the mix since the fourth film (The Goblet of Fire). Over the course of the series, as Voldemort gathered in power and corporeality, his wrenched, Medusa-like face eventually growing a body (though oddly losing its nose), the actor started to fill out the character with sharp, indelible gestures, a flick of the wrist, a twist of the mouth. In Part 2 his whispering hiss of a voice slithers into ears like a snake, seducing and terrorizing. But watch Ralph's hands, look as they flutter, their white, spidery fingers idling with exquisite delicacy as the long nails, sharpened into perfect arrows, threaten the worst.
This is such great screen villainy it makes you regret there wasn’t more of Voldemort all along and more too of his incarnations as another gifted boy wizard, Tom Riddle. The books, fat with detail and detours into the past, gave J K Rowling loads of room to play. With only two or so hours of story time, the movies have been forced to sacrifice swaths of her material, and while the scripts have been largely models of adaptation — most, this one included, are by Steve Kloves — the emphasis on action (and interminable games of quidditch) was also a concession to the action-imperative of the modern blockbuster. (A deadly dull game that served as a rehearsal for war, quidditch is one Hogwarts tradition I was happy to see burn.)
David Yates, who brought the series into its mature stage with the fifth feature, The Order of the Phoenix, gets it mostly right in Part 2. The movie, the eighth, is tightly focused and as somber and unsettling as it should be considering its apocalyptic events. It’s also often beautiful, washed in gray and so drained of other color that at first it looks as if it’s in black and white. It’s no wonder: David has kicked into Manichaean mode — and it’s the fight of good against evil, wizards against Voldemort and his hordes — so the director can be forgiven for almost overplaying the fascist overtones (the students rhythmically marching in the opener are nearly goose-stepping) if not for the juvenile St. Crispin’s Day speech at the end.
Although a few scenes feel calculated to work as synergistic complements to the Harry Potter Empire beyond — like the overlong swooping rail ride that turns a spooky cavern into a theme park — these pass quickly. One of the great and surprising satisfactions of the series is how, through the very fine and less so movies, it maintained its storytelling and filmmaking integrity, despite the corporate imperative. The love of the fans helped keep the series on track, as did the filmmakers (technicians included) and performers. The movies have affirmed that the relationship between mass art and its consumers is at times incredibly rich, evident in the mind-blowing fan culture of Potter world. Also: blockbusters can be awfully good.
This bigness is no small thing. There are times, particularly during the enervating summer season, when it can seem as if Hollywood has forgotten how to put on a really big — and great — show. (Perhaps the studios should just hand over more blockbusters to the British: Christopher Nolan, after all, is London-born.) It isn’t often in the summer that you enjoy the intense pleasure of a certain kind of old-fashioned cinema experience, the sort that sweeps you up in sheer spectacle with bigger-than-life images and yet holds you close with intimately observed characters and the details that keep your eyes and mind busy. Too often it can be hard to see the human touch amid the industrial machinery, which hasn’t been true here.
One reason the movies work is that their scale never overwhelmed the extraordinary characters, especially the wizards whose very ordinary habits, prejudices, quirks and fears made this fantastical world recognizable. Over time the special effects have grown more special, but at their finest these are so seamlessly integrated that they no longer pop off the screen (even in 3-D) and instead serve the story’s emotional realism. When you see the albino dragon in Part 2, you may marvel at the technical virtuosity of its creation and how the muscles on its flanks clench with palpable effort as it looks down at a cityscape much as King Kong once did. Yet what lingers is how quickly this computer-made creature becomes a character.
That dragon and Ralph make this final Harry Potter movie soar, as do Michael Gambon's brief turn and Maggie Smith's furious and then visibly delighted marshaling of an army of stone soldiers. Finally, too, there is Alan Rickman, who as Snape, Harry’s longtime nemesis, lifts the movie to its expressive high point. First seen standing in a window shaped like a coffin, Snape enters gravely, a picture of death. Pale and unsmiling, his black hair framing his white face like mourning crepe, he has always suggested Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, an ominous thought with children in the vicinity. That Snape has proven worthy of that comparison is partly a tribute to J K Rowling but that he has become such a brilliant screen character is due to Alan Rickman, who helped elevate a child’s tale of good and evil into a story of human struggle.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). The fighting is very intense, if largely bloodless, but be warned that several beloved characters do die and that is upsetting.