Tuesday, July 19, 2011
TEFB REVIEW: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2
Directed by David Yates
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
It doesn't matter if you're a fan of Harry Potter or not; with the final book in one of the most successful series of novels in literary history, J.K. Rowling unarguably nailed the ending of her story, which was first published fourteen years ago. While far from perfect, Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was pretty much everything a fan could ask for and then some. Despite a middle that drags like an ogre's belly, the seventh and last book of the series tied up loose ends, provided a satisfying conclusion for its characters, and dealt with themes of death and resurrection, redemption, loyalty, friendship, and forgiveness in a thoughtful and entertaining manner. The only question left after fans finished the book feeling fulfilled was this: would the last film in a series of movies just as successful as the books they followed stick its landing in the same way?
The answer is: yes, it does. With reservations, and a caveat that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 does NOT work as a stand-alone film, the final cinematic journey of Potter and pals provides folks who have followed this saga for the last ten years with a finale that makes one's commitment to the series feel worth the time and money put into it. While the film stumbles a bit when its toes first hit the landing pad, by the time the balls of its feet touch down all the shakiness has left its legs.
But first: the aforementioned caveat. The Harry Potter films haven't worked as stand alone pieces of cinema since at least The Order of the Phoenix, the fifth in the series. That's when director David Yates came on board and was hired to finish what Chris Columbus started and Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell continued. Those coming in blind to Phoenix and each film thereafter would find the story almost impossible to follow. By that time you were either committed as a fan or not.
It may seem obvious that the second part in this two part film feel like a simple continuation of its predecessor - after all, The Lord of the Rings trilogy recently proved that audiences could handle a continuous story told over three films. But those movies each had three distinct acts, and while you can't watch one without feeling the effects of the others, each film supports itself. Deathly Hallows Part 2 has no beginning. In fact, I don't even know if it has a middle either. After starting off with literally the last scene of Part 1, Part 2 simply continues where the last one left off. At least The Two Towers and Return of the King feature opening scenes reminding the audience of the stakes and, at the same time, allow the viewer to find their footing in the story. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 simply begins like we never stopped watching the one before it. It's disorienting, and the first twenty minutes of the film struggles with an awkward pace. Once it finds its rhythm, though, and the audience gets their bearings, the film becomes engaging, thrilling, and moving, despite its lack of plot.
What little plot there is involves Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) searching for the remaining Horcruxes - trinkets or objects villain Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has injected pieces of his soul into. While the three of them journey into the heart of Hogwarts to find these objects, the rest of the school and the adults who run it are tasked with protecting their beloved institution from Voldemort and the Death Eaters - minions of the Dark Lord sworn to find Potter so their master can kill him.
By the very nature of being a Part 2, Deathly Hallows 2/2 is all pay-off. We witness what comes of Ron and Hermione's passive/aggressive flirting, what became of Dumbledore, and what was really going on with Professor Severus Snape. While the middle films in this series dealt with the hardships any normal student would go through (unrequited love, vicious rumors, stern authority figures), there's none of that here. The stakes are as high as they ever have been, and the lives of thousands of students are on the line. There are no school dances to argue over dates at. Harry doesn't struggle with an increasingly large ego. The only obstacle Harry faces in Deathly Hallows Part 2 is death. The death of his friends, his loved ones, and ultimately of himself.
It's thematically dark stuff, and director Yates ensures a sense of dread and finiteness hangs over the proceedings at all times. The first shot of the film (after the recap of Part 1's last scene) is of a tombstone, and there are some horrific moments of violence in the film (some against characters we have grown to care about).
As much death as there is in the film, Yates shoots most of it as it occurs in the background, or in the periphery of the frame. The battle of Hogwarts (which looks quite gorgeous from a technical standpoint, by the way) takes place around the journey of our three main characters, and they attempt to finish what they've started as they run through pockets of violence that claim the lives of their friends and family. In an odd choice, Yates doesn't dwell on the big deaths, sometimes showing only glimpses of the bodies of fairly major characters. Where other directors would opt to squeeze tears from every fatality, Yates understands that the audience understands that these characters have paid the ultimate price to not only protect their friend, but to fight a cancerous evil. Their deaths are unwelcome, but honorable.
The effects of these deaths are felt in the performances of the three leads, who have never been better in the series. Daniel Radcliffe began these movies delivering stilted, unconvincing lines and has finished them as a legitimately great actor. Emma Watson and Rupert Grint don't get to do as much in Part 2 as they do in 1, but they still deliver great supporting work, with Grint ending up as the most improved performer over the past ten years.
As many issues as there are with the splitting of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two parts (I still believe it was unnecessary), there's no doubt that the past six months have seen a satisfying conclusion to what is the other great cinematic achievement of the last twenty years (the other, of course, being the Rings trilogy). It's a marvel that Warner Brothers was able to keep the same actors around for all eight of these films, recruited solid directors to helm them, and to make sure that, just as the books did, the films grow up with the audience. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 might not be a stand-alone film worthy of revisits by itself, but as a capper to this film series, it works like gangbusters.