Sunday, July 17, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 Review

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Directed by David Yates
Released in 2011

So long, childhood. I’ll miss ya, but I would be hard-pressed to think of a better way to end. There is no product of the imagination in our time, in any medium, that resonated with more youth, and even adults for that matter, than the Harry Potter saga. J.K. Rowling’s scripture – which created an exhaustively detailed, unique universe to promote such lofty morals as love and loyalty in the face of adversity, and ultimately overcoming such forces of evil – ended four years ago. It is now time for the film series to follow suit. What has been a remarkably consistent streak (what other series of four, five, let alone eight, films maintained such a level of quality?) has now reached its peak in the final film, showcasing inspired filmmaking and harboring more than ample affection for the millions of fans who made the series the literary, cinematic and cultural touchstone it was.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 faces Harry against ultimate evil, Lord Voldemort, in one final battle. Or two, or three, or ten, because this film is effectively a war movie. As fate may have it, Hogwarts serves as the final battleground, laying waste to what was once beautiful in the bedlam of war. Significant life is lost, as fans already know, plus an added minor – and particularly gruesome – death that may catch you by surprise.  The comedy that cavorted so freely with our adolescents before is still present, but notably relegated to the backburner for the somber emotional ties to reveal themselves and the plot strands unravel. With the exception of a trip to Gringotts Bank that, while very well-done, felt more like a preview for what surely will be ride at Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the action feels grounded, real, even as colorful spells whiz across the screen. Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves set the stakes for this violent conflict high. Perhaps even more effectively than Rowling’s material, the filmmakers illustrate what, or mainly who, hangs on the precipice of death and destruction. Much of this can be attributed to the wonders of editing, wherein images of others can be easily interpolated with Harry to establish connection. The soulful, purposeful special effects (the anti-Transformers effect) actually raise our empathy as well; when the invisible, dome barrier disintegrates to smoldering embers, a true sense of fear instills. Or as the camera sweeps over an army of Death Eaters charging the school – in what surely is a fraction of the actors actually physically present, a nod to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings style of visual effects – we loathe the intruders, full-aware of the evil they have already committed and what they can further destroy. Here, the effects, directing, story, and acting intersect in such a deliberate, artistic way that is rarely witnessed in blockbuster action films.

And what diverse, numerous acting wonders are on display here. The three leads have shown such steady improvement over the years, and to start from what was really no more than a children’s movie to this film – which in content, theme and execution is certainly not – it is fortunate they grew into their roles so well (and didn’t age awkwardly for that matter, either). Rupert Grint abided to the narrative's details by growing exponentially over the years, to the mountainous presence he is now. From cute little girl to Vogue cover girl, Emma Watson matured with class into a role that demanded a vessel of it. The long-brewing romance between Watson and Grint's characters works here with that final payoff even non-readers knew was approaching. And both actors work familiar chemistry with the main star, Daniel Radcliffe, surely because they are the best of friends in real life after all these years. Notably, Hermione's tears when she comes to terms with a long-time truth of Harry's is heartbreaking. Such heavy material is what all of the actors have to make their own, and Radcliffe delivers his best performance as he translates Harry's pain, strife and ultimate heroism to the screen. Perhaps in part due to the media's proliferation of Dan's image, but it is indisputable that Daniel is Harry. A role that once espoused such lines as "There's no Hogwarts without you, Hagrid", Harry Potter has grown to one of the strongest leads in movie franchise history. As Dumbledore astutely notes, the "brave, brave man" that is Harry sacrifices all while wielding the most powerful weapon, love, against the surrounding fog of evil. Radcliffe has proven the choice surrogate for such a powerful and inspirational character of our times.

Ralph Fiennes personifies evil in haunting style. Previously the terrifying Amon Goeth in Schindler's List and In Bruges' infuriated hitman, Fiennes possesses a proclivity for such roles of poor moral stature, but acting can be at its best when depicting humanity's worst (Daniel Plainview and The Joker for our recent times). His face, with those reptilian slits of a nose on skin resembling palish green cartilage, contorts in fury, euphoria and even laughter. With phenomenal special effects making his mask the sickly sight it is, the sinister, soulless creature Fiennes uncovers still rumbles beneath. Note his hand gestures as he elegantly waves a wand, treating his weapon as an extension of himself. Or as he awkwardly embraces Draco, showing compassion while genuinely showing none. Or as he, with a blasé flick of the wrist, kills his own obsequious kin. As the Horcruxes protecting his soul are destroyed with rapid efficiency (a notable difference from the last film), we feel the fear of a god turning mortal. A villain for the ages, Voldemort bears a venomous bite but, an extant, though long-rotten, heart. Those stubborn Academy voters should take note of one of our time's most consistently impressive actors, Mr. Fiennes.

Or better yet, recognize the strongest character of the saga, not only due to Rowling's prose, but the tour-de-force portrayal Alan Rickman gave all for Severus Snape. Certainly the most complex and perhaps most tortured of Rowling's creations, Snape surpasses the grossly intolerant but admittedly shallow character that enunciated such memorable lines like "Page three-hundred and ninety four" (though his scene-stealing pronunciation is made light of in an early scene). What he is here is so much more. In what may be the greatest passage of the entire series, Snape's backstory is revealed, turning him from a slithery source of dry humor to a great figure of modern literature. The film's interpretation fulfills the lofty expectations readers held, and then some. The amusing lines of the text are stripped, making for a solemn sequence of tragedy. Edits flow seamlessly and logically, and any cuts made by Kloves from the source material are sensible and unworthy of debate. But it is Rickman's acting here that makes for the emotional apex of the film, and perhaps the whole series. We watch, stunned, as he oscillates between lust, fear, anger, and ultimately loss. The use of Nicholas Hooper's score from Half-Blood Prince (this film is actually composed by Alexandre Desplat for the most part) establishes a connection to previous events and successfully, thought not overbearingly so, wrings emotion from the audience. Snape's tears become your own as you form sympathy for the devil, or someone who may not be after all. It is a beautiful scene with so many wise choices, but anchored first and foremost by only Rickman.

This film series has served as a modern British acting powerhouse - such a weird phrase to use to what will likely become one of the highest grossing films of all time - and the wealth of great actors populating the wizarding universe provides for a blockbuster on such a rare plane of quality. Maggie Smith returns as Professor McGonagall, and she is no longer a passive observer of the horrors taking place at her school but a leading force in relinquishing them. Her role as maternal figure to Harry is visited again, telling him "It's good to see you again" in a way only a mother could deliver. And her giddy excitement to exercise one of the most powerful - and coolest! - spells in her arsenal is a comic highlight. This occurs when the film really kicks off, as the allied teachers, Order of the Phoenix members and students arm Hogwarts' defenses. It is both nostalgic and quite fitting to see all of the faces reunite for the final battle, as those who aided Harry on his path are there with him until the very end. Jim Broadbent's Professor Slughorn is shown all too short; he owned his intrinsic role in Half-Blood Prince with drunken antics covering a guilt-ridden conscience. His role in the final book was slightly larger (only a few added lines really). It would have been great to see more of him. Time is given to others though, as Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid returns, Harry's original portal into the magical world. His role appears late but still completes an emotional circle.  Actor Warwick Davis works overtime as the useful but scheming goblin Griphook and the charming (pun certainly intended), powerful Filius Flitwick. Such disparity in the morals of both characters proves Davis as a nimble, graceful actor. Even Filch makes one last appearance, and his miserable demeanor thankfully subsides in such testing times (his job, however does not).

Molly Weasley is back (!), as is most of the Weasley clan (no Percy redemption, sorry). Molly's final duel is as satisfying as action scenes go. Matt Lewis slips a cheesy one-liner here or there as Neville Longbottom, and while some may view his St. Crispin's Day's speech as overly sentimental, it contains themes so tied to the story I empathize with its inclusion. And, besides, his killing blow in battle casts a memory modification spell on those who recall him as an awkward, forgetful youth. Evanna Lynch's Luna Lovegood isn't caught up in the clouds as much as before, and as she rebukes Harry for ignorance, we see, and hear, both a character and actor who have come a long way. Tom Felton tosses and turns in the mind of Draco Malfoy, a closet good heart being pushed to the dark side. He redeems himself besides his mother, played by Helen McCrory, whose powerful facial expressions speak louder than words.  Meanwhile his father, the true source of his inherited hardship, flees unloved by any side. Bellatrix Lestrange, of course, stays evil to the end. Helena Bonham Carter absorbs the darkness in a way that would cause even the Dark Lord to bat an eye. It is a delight to then watch her play Hermione play her own character in a doomed-to-fail disguise. Good girl Hermione cannot meet such levels of vileness. And Ciarán Hinds, almost unrecognizable, plays Aberforth Dumbledore, the brother. He casts a shadow of doubt over the prospect of victory, but, again, redemption is such an integral theme to these stories that his progression is very satisfying.

A nice surprise apparates with Michael Gambon's Albus Dumbledore in a short, but crucial, scene. Steve Kloves wisely kept nearly all of Rowling's original lines for this exchange, and the lighting and design likely matches what many readers visualized. Sticking close to the source material works wonders here, as there are some really brilliant quotes. And how welcome is it to see Dumbledore before not just his prize, but closest friend, Harry, one last time.

David Yates marks his fourth time in the director's chair with this one, more than any before. Order of the Phoenix was poorly paced and lacked the drive of all the previous films. Thankfully with Half-Blood Prince he was able to show his talent that was apparently muffled from exterior sources for his first endeavor. At least according to him. Nonetheless, the last three films (including the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2) have been the strongest consecutively, and he focuses all of his strengths for the final hurrah. The pacing, thanks to Kloves in part, shoots by with nary a dull moment, yet does not feel too short (though it, at 130 minutes, is the shortest film by far). Occupying that many characters on the screen, yet still prioritizing the leads and finishing their story, must be the secret.

Action flows with an energy that can only be described as exhilarating. As Hogwarts' defenses are set - not even one "Stupefy!" or "Expelliarmus" cast yet - excitement and anxiety builds for what happens once those barricades break. A skyset camera captures the crystalline, clear dome as it is built, and while the entire shot is likely all CGI, a united spirit radiates from the screen. We believe real people are enacting a fortress to fight for their lives. Since when have computer effects and green screens done that? Thoughtful direction makes all the difference.

While books describe images to be interpreted individually by the reader, film is a visual medium. Yates is aware of that. Voldemort's undoing is achieved with shots of artful composure, occasionally with the bare minimum of audio and no dialogue whatsoever. The silent prologue shows the last scene of Part 1, as Voldemort exhumes Dumbledore's grave to retrieve the Elder Wand. His silent depiction of requited lust is chilling. Even more so, later he drifts through a shockingly bloody pile of corpses, looking down at those fallen beneath him, a madman at the monarch. And the scene at the boathouse is immaculately staged; Yates has a future in stage direction if he so chooses. Once Voldemort turns desperate, failing again and again to slaughter the boy who brought upon his downfall, we see whatever man there is slowly disintegrate to nothingness. As he flies through the air with Harry (a noted addition not in the book), slashing and gnawing, all primal fury expels and his collected composure dissipates. This strange, but wisely included, encounter leads to their final faceoff, both stooped, taking aim. Yates believes in the dramatic significance Rowling prescribed this battle, and even takes it up a notch while maintaining thematic consistency.

It is so worth to recognize all the forces that make the film's setting so convincing, who add their artistic touches in each frame. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra knows that the devil is in the details, and, with Yates direction, turns a group of students entering school into a Hitler Youth rally. He utilizes this fictional England they create - with ravines and hills more representative of, say, Switzerland - to utilize depth, as in that final leap of faith Harry and Voldemort make. Nick Dudman, supervisor of make-up, transforms an actor (Warwick Davis) into two different characters, each convincingly lifelike. Stephenie McMillan, Barry Wilkinson and Stuart Craig - set decorator, property master and production designer, respectively - fill the Room of Requirement with knick-knacks and all sorts of fascinating bits of magical "trash". You feel bad for the ultimate fate of the room. The vivid, numerous costumes led by Jany Temime are among the best in Hollywood. John Richardson helms special effects, including the stunning dragon at Gringotts. Its pause upon breaking free, taking in the air and land it has long been deprived of, makes the collection of pixels and rendered models into flesh and blood.

As I have already noted, screenwriter Steve Kloves makes many wise choices when translating the book to film. No matter what length the film would have been, content would have to be cut and fans would demand blood. I understand such thinking; everyone has a favorite scene that they want to see on screen. And there are a few curious absences:  no follow-up with Peter Pettigrew? Perhaps a subtle nod to the cloak? (it's in the title, after all). We all have our individual gripes, and it is this reason that shows how much we care about the characters, the original text. The films have served as a companion to the books; it is in the pages we read for the first time where are imaginations served scenes of Hogwarts in its most intimate form. The films flesh out what we already are close to, occasionally offering a different interpretation. Britain's finest fill the roles, bring life to the characters on-screen. Alan Rickman's portrayal of Snape is even more stately, sad than the book's version. How magical that the books and films can coexist, crossing each others boundaries yet ultimately stay separate artistic entities. Anyone who has not read the novels gets much less from those who do; even knowing all that happened beforehand offers rewarding surprises in watching your vision realized, or perhaps tweaked. Even butchered, it offers a personal experience. The script caters to those who read the book:  for instance, a mention of Lupin and Tonks' child late in the film comes as common knowledge. However, the child was never acknowledged in the movies previously; only in the book. Those who stuck with it for the longest get the most out of it, in the end.

The last entry in the highest grossing film series of all time has no obligation to be good. In fact, a montage of the best moments from the previous films might have even broken records. But, in such a rare instance of filmmaking and production, in a time when robots, lustful vampires and comedy remakes passed as sequels rule, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 marks the highest artistic achievement of its creators yet. All the aspects mesh together just as the story's jigsaws fall into place. Most humbling of all is to watch the actors, those dozens of grade-A stars and child actors that grew up before our eyes, surrender all for a story they believe in. It is a story of one boy, and so many others beside him, using love to defeat irreconcilable evil. I cannot think of a more heartwarming theme. Now, it is time for us to shelf our collection, hang our robes. I will revisit my childhood; there is no question I will. The books and Blu-rays have more wear and tear to come. But eventually little hands will wonder of such a story their parents have long kept on display, a light film of dust beginning to settle. We will be more than happy to satiate such curiosity. And so the cycle begins again.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

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