Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 represents not only the creative zenith of the entire series, it is easily one of the most satisfying films of 2011 – and stands among the very best examples of fantasy filmmaking.
Director David Yates, the wizard behind the final four films, is masterfully in control here, setting an elegiac tone from the very beginning, with a muted color palette in eerie tableaux like Hogwarts surrounded by eerie floating Dementors who are just…waiting. The story sees Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) trying to complete the mission begun in the previous film, to destroy the Horcruxes – mystical objects that hold pieces of Lord Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) soul – so Voldemort can be killed before the villain murders Harry. That relatively straightforward plot ignites an intricately interlocking and exciting story that builds to a Brobdingnagian battle for Hogwarts – and Harry’s life – at the movie’s climax. The magical war is fought with stellar visual effects and swooping, looping cameras that propel viewers into a thicket of crackling curses and tumbling rubble. The dragon is amazing, the fights look as realistic as magic ever could, seamlessly blending CGI and live actors.
And those live actors get plenty of chances to emote. The Lord of the Rings movies aside, fantasy films are not usually cited for sterling acting, but Alan Rickman owns this movie as Severus Snape. Fans finally learn the whole story about Snape and his harrowing life of secrets, stifled love, jealousy, loyalty and a friendship that demanded more than the ultimate sacrifice from those involved. Rickman revels in conveying every painful fragment of Snape’s shattered soul. The character proves to be even more complex than Rickman’s previously sinister and perspicacious performances had implied. Snape opens the film with his face a mysterious rictus, and Rickman’s bravura reenactment of Snape’s ongoing torment is one of the film’s two emotional climaxes. If Johnny Depp can shanghai an Oscar nomination for his peacock pirate, Capt. Jack Sparrow (the same year that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won Best Picture), surely Rickman will make the grade for portraying the long-suffering Snape.
This film’s other high point comes after Harry confronts the horrible secret at the core of the series. Radcliffe plays a stunning mixture of shock, sadness, fear and resignation. Moments later, he summons the strength to march Harry to his cursed destiny with dignity and bravery. The rest of the cast acquit themselves splendidly, especially Matthew Lewis, who makes the most of Neville Longbottom maturing into a hero in his own right. Fiennes shines as the ruthless yet soft-spoken personification of ultimate evil. Warwick Davis as Griphook and Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood also stand out.
The final installment of the eight-film adaptation of author J.K. Rowling’s seven best-selling novels pays off on the previous films with cameos and references to what has gone before, including the Chamber of Secrets and the basilisk, the Room of Requirement and the Pensieve. Minor characters make a splash, and not everyone survives the story; the tour of the fallen is nicely understated and sad.
However, all this is not to say the flick is perfect. The story hits the ground running, with absolutely no reprise from part one, so if you don’t quite remember where last year’s opus left off, well, good luck! It’s also a little unclear how Harry pulls off a clever feint at a key moment, and the wrap-up of the long-running subplot involving the Malfoy clan feels rushed and incomplete. Since not all the characters are called by name, viewers without encyclopedic knowledge of Rowling’s universe may stumble to remember the monikers of some lesser players.
Still, Dumbledore himself could not conjure a better ending for this remarkable series of films than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, and the coda that crowns it all is a kind of magic.