HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2 begins with a bang and doesn’t stop. Starting right where the last film ended, it barely has time to catch its breath, or go into florid exposition, before diving right into the final face-off between the boy, now man, wizard (Daniel Radcliffe), embodiment of all that is innocent and good, and his nemesis, the snake-faced Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), embodiment of exactly the opposite.
There is no stopping for review as Harry, Ron, and Hermione plumb the depths of Gringott’s subterranean bank vaults, and the nature of the goblins who run it, before returning to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to find that, in the words of one character, Hogwarts has changed. It, like the tales spun by J.K. Rowling, has grown darker, the school has succumbed to the new fascist order that Voldemort and his legions have engineered. Presiding over the new order is Harry’s old antagonist and the new headmaster, Professor Snape (Alan Rickman back in the role he was born to play). Rather than a classic action film, though there is plenty of mind-spinning action, director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have finessed the story into a classic thriller with enormous special effects and a fantastic plot. Dragons soar, statues come to life, and ghosts deliver strategic clues, but it’s not the bombast of tumbling crenellation that delivers the drama. Rather, it is the script, actors, and director collaborating to find the solid reality in the story — the finality of death. With those stakes on the line, the window dressing, effective though it is, is just that. The real story is cheating death when it is a sure and certain thing. In a bold strategic move that has the brilliance of simplicity, as things reach the direst pitch, silence takes hold as the reality of death sinks in for Harry and the others and, more importantly, for the audience. The music stops swelling, the battering ram of battle sounds ceases, and an eerie silence settles in. The suspense becomes all but unbearable.
With only a two hours or so of running time, much has been left out, though the paring away shows a keen understanding of the source material and why it works so well. Despite the paring, few characters introduced over the course of the previous seven films are left out, even if their appearances are in some cases little more than a cameo that will resonate only with those quick enough to catch them and to register the import. This is a lean film of bone, sinew, and muscle. And beefcake, given the excuse for Radcliffe to show off a mature, toned, manly and, hirsute physique at one point. If there is little time for the wealth of vivid details that make the books such a delight, there is, instead, a visual acuity that fills in rather than glosses over. It matters not a whit if the viewer cannot identify a among the casualties of the final battle between Harry and Voldemort, a pair of bodies given special attention by the camera, the way they are posed, hands almost touching, tells a story of savage poignancy.
And it is, at last, the emotion of the stories, all tied together in the final installment, that remains in the forefront. A concept kept foremost in the books, and, thankfully, in the film versions. Not just emotion, but the maturation of same, using as its point of reference an awestruck little boy discovering his powers, supernatural and not, growing decisively into a determined and battle-hardened man, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2, remains true to that concept. The actors have matured, as well, into fine actors, Radcliffe intense and focused, Emma Watson as Hermione, the whiz kid wizard, evincing a grounded poise with less of the flintiness than before. Again, though, it is Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasely who supplies the heart as the everyman with whom the audience can identify, the average guy, or rather, wizard, who finds depths of courage and loyalty that are extraordinary. Grint brings the comic relief, saying what the audience is thinking when things become preposterous, dangerous, or both, and the heroism of a young man who rises to the occasion, no matter how difficult, how unsettling, or, in the case of Ron and Hermione’s first kiss, a wondrous spontaneity that makes the inevitability and the surprise of the moment both indelibly real.
Unlike the first films, this is probably too intense for younger viewers, and will definitely be a source of frustration to anyone not familiar with the previous films or the source material. Then again, it’s not intended for them, even if a longer, much longer, director’s cut should surface at some point. This is intended as a treat for the fans, and to have gone any other route would have been a betrayal of them, and of the series.