Director: David Yates
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
A decade and many dollars later, the Harry Potter saga comes to an end, and I found myself looking back on why I even got interested in the series in the first place. I can actually pinpoint it to a TV ad for the first film, a glimpse of the inside of Gringott’s, the goblin bank, with John Williams’ inspired drunken-waltz theme ringing out. There was something about the mix of sound and vision that hooked me and the satiric strangeness of the image, and the promise of a revival of the spit-polish Spielbergian production style I had grown up with powerful enough to draw me into a movie theatre at a time when adult Harry Potter fans were still mostly in the closet. When I partook of this last installment, three-quarters of the audience were over 20. All of us, the kids and adults who first went to see that film, and especially the actors portraying the young heroes—Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Tom Felton, Matthew Lewis, Bonnie Wright, and many others—are different people to those of a decade ago, and what a 10 years it has been. I felt gratified that a major set-piece returns to Gringott’s with a vision of those malevolent little goblin bureaucrats now having their world turned upside down by a rampaging dragon. If that’s not a metaphor for the current global financial crisis, it might as well be.
Looking back on it, the early ’00s were something of a promising golden age for fans of the cinefantastique, for we had the mighty Lord of the Rings films, the second Star Wars trilogy, the early and better X-Men and Spider-Man films, and hell, even the middle installment of The Matrix series; all promised good things ahead, even if crushing disappointment sometimes resulted. The Potter series is pretty well the last of them, the dark horse that might have remained the overdrawn gee-whiz kid’s stuff Chris Columbus served up in his first two films. But the series has more than paid off the initial promise to grow up along with its audience and up the stakes of the drama. With these films gone, I suppose we’ll have to grit our teeth and get used to being pulverised by the cinematic Voldemorts of the tentpole age.
Recently, when I sat down and watched the series right through again, I had to give the filmmakers their propers. Even given the pudgy, overdrawn aspects of Columbus’ entries and the sometimes fragmented narratives of later ones, very few film series have sustained such a level of intricacy blended with scale over such a canvas. That’s partly enabled by the relatively stolid, parochial values they espouse—when boiled down these films are just about friends sticking together and fighting threats from without. I couldn’t help but notice the disparity between Helena Bonham Carter’s brilliance as Bellatrix Lestrange, clad like a neo-Victorian goth sweeping all before her, and Emma Watson, who finishes up clad in the same get-up while disguised as Bellatrix. This makes an unexpected comment on the final vision of our heroes at the end of the saga, settled comfortably into bland, parental middle age and looking entirely like normal suburbanites, sexless and paunchy—suddenly my empathy for the Death Eaters, who seem to genuinely enjoy being bizarre, brilliant outsiders, skyrocketed. After years of bloodcurdling battle, was it really only so our hero could turn into David Brent? The Harry Potter stories do seem just a little too determined to lull their fans into a sense of comfortable normalcy rather than celebrating uniqueness, and the damage the heroes continually wreak on the settled order is generally only to ensure it’s pieced back together properly. I’m being churlish, I know, but still I feel it’s worth interrogating the material on this level, if only because it’s so damn good in so many other respects.
I wasn’t one of those who disliked the first half of the adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s final novel, party because I dug its dark, eerie, forlorn tone and appreciated how much heavy lifting Yates had done in clearing the decks surrounding character relationships, which pays off in spades here. Part Two begins in the same bleak, shell-shocked key as its predecessor precisely where we left off: Harry, Ron, and Hermione are hunting down the horcruxes in which villain Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has hidden portions of his soul to ensure his survival. They enlist the aid of Gringott’s employee Griphook (Warwick Davis, splendidly mordant, who does double duty as Professor Flitwick) to break into the bank to steal away a horcrux kept in Bellatrix’s vault. This requires penetrating the elaborate defences of Gringott’s and then getting out again. Hermione has the lunatic, brilliant idea of fleeing on the back of a dragon kept as watchdog, which thrashes its way across the rooftops of London before the heroes leap from its back into a Scottish loch. They sneak into Hogwarts School with the aid of Aberforth (Ciaran Hinds), the bitter, peevish brother of the late headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), and when they meet up again with their friends from Dumbledore’s army, including Harry’s current flame Ginny (Wright), former flame Cho (Katie Leung), the awkward, good-natured Neville Longbottom (Lewis), serenely daffy Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), and all the others, the mood of loss and alienation that so permeated Part One instantly melts away. The young folk of Hogwarts finally get to make good on all that education.
It’s almost impossible, then, with the weight of emotion and ballet of stories that have built up to this moment, not to be carried away with the thrill of the Hogwarts staff and student body revolting against the grimly fascistic regime that has descended on the school. Neville sports black eyes because he refused to participate in the new school training method of practising torture curses on first-year students. Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, offering a marvelous capper to his series-long turn full of arch aggression and sullen feeling), the new headmaster and secret triple agent, flees rather than face the furious magic unleashed on him by McGonagall (Maggie Smith), only to die treacherously at the hands of Voldemort. Voldemort by now has recognised the threat to his peculiar life insurance scheme, and musters an army of followers to smash through the defences of Hogwarts and battle the determined resisters within as if this is some fantasy lovechild of If… (1968) and the school sequences in Pink Floyd The Wall (1982). Harry and Co. search for the remaining horcruxes, only to learn through Snape’s siphoned memories that Harry is one himself and must die.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that, but here the overt Christ parables snap into focus as death and resurrection result. Fortunately, muscular Christianity is the point here. Thrilling, fleeing visions of apocalyptic anarchy sprawl across Yates’ expertly controlled widescreen framing: there’s none of Michael Bay’s flagrant visual bullshit here. Neville actually becomes the most compelling figure in the battle, bravely luring Voldemort’s soldiers into a trap on a disintegrating bridge, and standing up with a Churchillian speech and show of defiance to heckling bad guys about to get the shock of their lives.
If there’s a loss with this incident-packed grand finale, it’s of those dryly funny little set-pieces that have come to truly mark Yates’ contributions to the series, offering nothing quite as weirdly funny as the spider funeral in The Half-Blood Prince (2009) and the Nick Cave dance in The Deathly Hallows: Part One, and few of the more intimate character moments that had featured since Alfonso Cuaron’s The Prisoner of Azkaban (2003). There is, however, a last-minute breath of the wispy sensuality that has often pervaded the series, as Harry attempts to appease the ghost of Helena Ravenclaw (Kelly Macdonald, along with Hinds, the only major new blood), a vision of angry, melancholic beauty guarding the permeable gates of life, love, and death. This mood floats up again in a flashback revealing the tragic history of Snape’s love for Harry’s mother, when he delighted her with levitating flowers and bawled in pain over her dead body. Such is a timely reminder of the moral and emotional cost of Voldemort’s predations that echo on through generations and inspire depths of hatred and determination of quite supernatural intensity. There’s an action set-piece in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione battle Draco Malfoy (Felton) and his goons in the Room of Requirement, concluding in a firestorm that is spectacular, but gilds the lily a bit. The same can be said, though in a different sense, for a scene in which Harry, before offering himself up Christ-like for Voldemort, chats with the shades of his parents (Adrian Rawlins and Geraldine Somerville), Lupin (David Thewlis), and Sirius (Gary Oldman): the point of the scene has been endlessly reiterated throughout the series, and seems more an excuse just to squeeze those actors in again.
But Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves successfully patch up some of the awkward narrative motion of Rowling’s book. Her familiar structural motif—to limit most of the drama to the immediate viewpoint of Harry—which she manipulated so well in the early novels, proved more than a bit clunky on the epic canvas of the finale. Yates and Kloves even manage to make the crucial sequence of Harry learning of Snape’s (Alan Rickman) motivations and the terrible truth about himself in the process seem a grimly beautiful narrative switchback, rather than an awkward bit of storytelling. The incredible sprawl of British character actors sees some greats reduced to a few scant lines of dialogue, but those can be made to count: Jim Broadbent’s Horace Slughorn seemed able to wring belly-laughs from audience members around me with every wheezy exclamation. Michael Gambon comes back for a few salutary moments in the afterlife, which resembles King’s Cross railway station. In general, this climax is, and I say this with all due diligence and restraint as a sober film critic, pretty damn awesome. It’s just as intense, heroic, bloodthirsty, and wildly cinematic as you want it to be. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie audience go as quiet as during the scene in which Harry marches towards his doom under his eternal foil Voldemort’s wand, and at the end they were clapping—it’s been years since I’ve seen an audience applaud a movie outside a festival setting.
Yates has successfully maintained continuity in the series with a vivid tradition of British fantasy. Big finishes to huge movie series are notoriously difficult to pull off. Even the points where it stops for breath and stock-taking become part of a genuinely tense anticipation. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) is, in spite of its longuers, pretty much the gold standard of that sort of thing, though I tended to think back more to Return of the Jedi (1983), the underrated series closer of the Star Wars saga, as one of the better examples that, in spite of the Ewoks and lazy plotting, managed to sustain and contrast three different levels and types of conflict. It’s in this regard that Yates stumbles a bit in moving between focal points in his colossal final battles, which lack the sorts of varied, rapidly intercut vignettes that make for great battle scenes. I had expected Yates to expand upon the snippets Rowling provided, but he rather disappointingly doesn’t. Molly Weasley’s (Julie Walters) death duel with Bellatrix, perhaps the most relishable and unexpected scene in the novel, makes the cut, but it’s poorly set-up and weirdly jagged, as if Yates sensed everyone would be ticked off if he didn’t include it. This appears to be evidence that the constant pressure to keep everything moving makes the editing occasionally too tight. But still, these are fairly minor quibbles.
I recall an acquaintance predicting half of the cast would be dead by the time this film rolled around, which has thankfully not come true. As much as I love Gambon as an actor, he never quite erased the memory of Richard Harris’ pitch-perfect turn as Dumbledore, but Harris has been, thankfully, the only major loss. I suspect Smith, Rickman, and a few others, however, will be glad to kick back now. If some of the familiar series stalwarts fade into the background, like Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid, it’s because, appropriately, Harry is characterised through his firm moments of newly adult, genuine leader’s resolve, keeping his eye on the prize no matter what injury befalls those around him, a sadly necessary evolution. The quality of these films’ cast has always been a secret weapon, even if sometimes the weapons go fizz. Here Fiennes’ villainy finally gets some space to strut. If there’s a problem with Voldemort, it’s that he’s so completely and utterly a bad guy, treating even his suppliant first lady Bellatrix with rampant contempt, that he doesn’t quite infuriate as much as, say, the cutesy-poo sadist Dolores Umbridge, so reminiscent of bad schoolteachers the world over. But Fiennes knows how to play bad guys, and he manages to give Voldemort cheerless, numbingly arrogant grandeur, and a kind of pathos, thanks to the void in his soul that his relentless efforts never fill. This is cruelly exposed when he tries to hug Draco in a congratulatory moment—the Charles Montgomery Burns of dark wizards.
It’s apt then that Yates compensates for his other hesitations in offering a bristling, thrilling, proper duel between Harry and Voldemort, something Rowling didn’t quite deliver on. This is especially gratifying in that it involves the clear spectacle of Voldemort not simply being outsmarted, as on the page, but taken down not just a few pegs, but every peg. Here Harry evokes Shakespearean grit as he grabs hold of Voldemort and hurls them both from the Hogwarts battlements, hand in hand to hell, only to streak through the sky before crashing into the courtyard for a final duel that results in the villain disintegrating into a shower of gossamer ash flakes, a fascinatingly delicate dissolution for a supervillain. Yates’ sense of the grandeur in stillness finally resolves in a moving moment of exhausted quiet, as Harry, Ron, and Hermione stand with the flaming ruins of Hogwarts behind them, filled with the quiet elation of survival.