Pottering to the end

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Relax, wizards, graduation approacheth. Or is that Voldemort?

Relax, wizards, graduation approacheth. Or is that Voldemort?

Rated 3.0

The ads for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 read, “It all ends July 15.” There’s an almost sour undertone to the slogan, as if it were promising not completion but relief, not the dramatic culmination of an epic saga but the grateful end of an exhausting ordeal.

At times the Harry Potter movies have been an ordeal, especially under director David Yates. He got off to a good start with Order of the Phoenix, then stumbled badly with Half-Blood Prince, the only entry in the series that was downright lousy. Last November’s Deathly Hallows: Part 1 promised more of the same; in my review I wondered if everybody was getting burned out and worried that J.K. Rowling’s great books were “heading for a dismal film finale.”

Fortunately, the news is better than that. This final installment (covering the last third of Rowling’s last book) ends the Harry Potter story on an up note, and is more satisfying than the last two movies led us to expect.

The news is not all good. If anyone is burned out after 10 years of Harry Potter, it’s my guess that writer Steve Kloves leads the pack. Kloves wrote all but one of the screenplays, and the first few times out he did yeoman work on Rowling’s teeming plots. But in the later movies, he relies more and more on the audience being already familiar with—indeed, having memorized—the books, and his scripts have been not adaptations so much as blueprints for a set of illustrations. In this movie, for example, dialogue is often mumbled or unintelligible. We can probably blame Yates for that, but it seems symptomatic of an approach that has become more pronounced as the series wore on: Everybody knows the story inside out; let’s just nail down the high points and let them fill in any gaps from memory.

On the plus side, the three young stars (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) are stronger and more energized than they’ve been in a long time. After making Harry Potter movies, and carrying a huge share of the overwhelming load, for nearly half their lives, they were getting to look exhausted and (no pun intended) harried, as though they were trapped in a demanding school where the study load was murder and they didn’t think they’d ever make it to graduation. Now, at long last, finally seeing the end of the tunnel, they’ve managed to regain some of the enthusiasm they had at the beginning, when they were just kids and all this was new and wonderfully fun.

Anybody who’s read the books knows that Deathly Hallows: Part 2 will stand or fall on the treatment of the climactic Battle of Hogwarts, where Harry and his pals have their duel to the death with the forces of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), and here Yates and company deserve credit for delivering the goods—generally. You still have to know the story, for much of the action is not explained, but at least the illustrations are good ones. There is plenty of magic once again; the last few movies have been depressingly magic-free, as if Warner Bros. were refusing to foot the bill for all those special effects (or Yates and his crew were sick and tired of hassling with them).

Yates still bobbles details. The death of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) at the hands of Molly Weasley (Julie Walters) recalls the excitement of that scene in the book but doesn’t duplicate it. The movie wisely includes the “Nineteen Years Later” epilogue, but Yates fails to make it resonate as Rowling did on the page.

Now that it’s all over, the Harry Potter series invites a summing up. The movies were remarkably uneven, and peaked early—the third, Prisoner of Azkaban, is still the best by several long miles. For all the time, money and effort expended, there is not a great performance or indelible moment in all 19 hours, 39 minutes of them. At their worst they were sloppy, at their best diligent and workmanlike—but unlike Rowling’s books, they were never inspired or inspiring.

I’ll give my 11-year-old nephew, who saw Part 2 with me, the last word; his appraisal suits the series as a whole: “I think the movie was probably as good as they could make it. But the book is still better.”