The thrilling conclusion to a phenomenal cinematic story 10 years in the telling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 is proof that authentic movie excitement is its own form of magic. Half the spell-casting formula lies in what the audience itself brings to the eighth and final movie made from J.K. Rowling’s culture-shaping literary epic: namely, its fondness for and fascination with every one of Rowling’s characters, down to the last goblin, Death Eater, and professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts. (The sight of intrepid Maggie Smith as unsinkable Professor Minerva McGonagall is an occasion for unchecked delight; and look, there’s indispensable David Bradley again as cranky caretaker Argus Filch!) The potent second half of Harry‘s spell, meanwhile, consists of the artistic self-confidence and complexity with which the movies themselves have grown and deepened over the years. Raised to maturity under the well-tempered direction of David Yates and the wise screenwriting of Steve Kloves, the saga culminates in a finale as satisfying and emotionally intense — frightening, sad, and ultimately comforting — as it is visually grand. This is an ending suitable for The End.
Millions already know what’s at stake in Part 2, but those who don’t won’t find their surprise ruined in this review. It’s safe to say that when the story resumes, Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, now graceful adults and graceful actors) continue their mission, established in Part 1, to destroy the rest of the seven magical Horcruxes that contain pieces of the soul of that hideous, snake-nosed be-all and end-all of evil, Lord Voldemort. And as Voldemort, Ralph Fiennes reaches new expressive highs — better to call them lows? — with every crook of a fang-nailed finger signifying his pain and his fury at Harry, the Boy Who Lived. Time is running out. Hogwarts is under siege. Harry observes others sacrificing their lives to protect him (there’s real death here, just like in the real world) and wrestles with his obligations, not only as a wizard but as a man.
With so much heightened action and wrenching emotion, pacing is key. And here Yates and his outstanding production team excel. In an episode nearly bursting — at times precariously flooded — with the abundance of Rowling’s imagination, the narrative clicks together like an enchanted puzzle. The set pieces are fantastical, including a wild ride — harking back to Harry’s first broomstick escapades — in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione sneak into Gringotts Bank, past rows of Dickensian goblins, to break into Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault. The feeling that Voldemort and his dark minions are close on Harry’s heels is palpable, making small moments of intimacy (Ron and Hermione kiss like adults — then giggle with surprise like children) all the more precious. Tragic, inscrutable former professor Severus Snape now emerges as a key player in Harry’s fate. And as played with mysterious, concentrated power by Alan Rickman, Snape’s character is so vividly established that even the shadowed silhouette of his Byronic black hair and cape triggers an immediate audience response. (Composer Alexandre Desplat assists with a score that tunes in to our collective aural memory of Potter movies past; production designer Stuart Craig excites our collective tactile senses with a finale-size wealth of evocative objects.)
In the end — the end before the movie manifestation of Rowling’s gentle epilogue — Harry and his friends are, of course, much older than when they first caught the Hogwarts Express from Platform 9 ¾. And yet, united with their classmates and teachers to defend the school that shaped them (and also shaped more than one generation of readers and moviegoers), they’re still so very young. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 leaves us with the dawning, awesome recognition that the world is huge, fraught, enigmatic, magical, dangerous, delightful, and, ultimately, the responsibility of young people who must first find their own footing. That’s quite an accomplishment for a story about a boy with a wand. A-