Friday, July 15, 2011

The End of "Harry Potter"

The adjective you may be hearing a lot in connection with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" is, finally. Finally, we have the great confrontation between young wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Finally, Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry becomes a battleground in the last stand between our heroes and Voldemort's hordes of Death Eaters. Finally, after a pair of slower movies, we have one that has lots and lots of action. And finally, after ten years and eight movies, some of the minor, but key players who have been with the series since the beginning, get their chance to shine at last. It's all extremely satisfying to watch, and you can't help but want more as the credits roll.

But first, when last we left Harry Potter in "Deathly Hallows, Part 1," Harry and his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), were on a quest to find the horcruxes, vessels containing pieces of Voldemort's soul. Only after destroying all of them can Voldemort be killed, and there are four left unaccounted for at the start of the final film. A trip to the goblin bank of Gringotts to dispose of one horcrux provides the first big action setpieces, a series of fun, effects-driven sequences that could easily be the climax of any other "Potter" movie. But the real fireworks don't begin until the trio, plus recently rescued friend Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), secretly journey back to Hogwarts, now under the control of the turncoat Professor Snape (Alan Rickman).

There is too much plot and too many characters to go into more detail, but keep an eye on Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters), Argus Filch (David Bradley), and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). Warwick Davis pulls double duty as two different characters, while Helena Bonham Carter gets to do a new take on Bellatrix Lestrange. We also have a pair of final additions to the cast - Kelly McDonald as a reluctant ghost and Ciaran Hinds as Aberforth, a bartender with many secrets. On top of this, add dozens of other appearances by famous names and familiar faces, some that go by so quick that fans will surely want to rewatch later to take account of them all. I'd mention some of my favorites, but that would be spoiling the fun.

I've already seen some complaints that not enough time was spent on that galaxy of minor characters, engaged in the giant Hogwarts battle that takes up two thirds of "Deathly Hallows, Part 2." There are scenes where the scope does feel narrow - at one point it seems like McGonagall, Professor Flitwick (Warwick Davis), and Professor Slughorn (James Broadbent), are the only members of the staff left at the school. Some cameos later on disprove this, but blink and you miss them. Die-hard fans may feel shortchanged, seeing so little of some of their favorites from the previous installments, but the brevity is a matter of filmmaking necessity. To avoid a chaotic story with the audience's attention being constantly pulled in a dozen different directions, the director wisely chose a few prominent side characters to highlight, and snuck the rest into the corners wherever he could make them fit.

Take Mrs. Weasley for example. She has that one great scene in the book that everybody loves, but in order to include it at the end of the film, she had to be established earlier on as someone important, so less informed viewers would know to pay attention to her. This is why the film features so much more of her than Mr. Weasley (Mark Williams), who we only glimpse for a few seconds. As always, the film adaptation has to balance giving the fans all the geeky stuff that they love with maintaining the integrity and the coherence of the film's storytelling. Those who have only watched the films are also probably going to feel a little unsatisfied with some of the rushed, or at times practically nonexistent exposition. If you can figure out how Harry ended up with the Resurrection Stone without the help of the book, you're a far more perceptive viewer than I.

More time with the less vital characters would also have taken away from major players like Harry, Voldemort, and Snape, who have so much to do in this final chapter of the "Harry Potter" saga. This is where the film is at its best, showcasing strong performances and condensing several plot twists down to their most emotionally resonant essentials. One of the great joys of the film is that finally, finally, Alan Rickman gets to destroy Snape's aloof facade and let us see what that character is really made of. And Ralph Fiennes, who really does not get enough credit for playing Voldemort so evil he sometimes borders on hilarious, does some of his best work as the evil Dark Lord here. As for Daniel Radcliffe, who has to shout rousing speeches of encouragement, have reflective moments of self-doubt, and convince us that all this mystical mumbo-jumbo really does make sense, he's fantastic. I hope he goes on to a long post-"Potter" career.

Production values, as always for the recent "Harry Potter" films, are stellar. In this one, you lose a lot of the beautiful natural landscapes, but there's plenty of picturesque rubble and debris. The CGI effects and creatures have never looked better, particularly a dragon that Harry and the gang encounter early on in the Gringotts vaults. I only have one quibble with the visuals, which is that I could tell where some of the 3D effects were added, even though I didn't watch the film in 3D, which was a little distracting. On the aural side of things, though, Alexandre Desplat's score was appropriately epic. Between this and "Tree of Life," Desplat is having a great year.

The writing is the source of the film's biggest shortfalls, though it's hard to fault it too much. There are some awkward lines of dialogue, a few odd departures from the book (that fans are already raging over), and loose ends everywhere you look. Since the filmmakers decided several films ago to let the books explain away the trickier happenstances, like the previously mentioned bit with the Resurrection Stone, this was inevitable. The parts that they choose to focus on, however, are handled very well. Kloves and Yates manage to play some of the book's big moments better than J.K. Rowling did. It's easy to focus on what they left out, but once you realize how much they managed to pack into the film, and all the moments they managed to keep, it's damn impressive.

In the end, I'm glad to report that the "Harry Potter" cast and crew stuck the landing and the finale was worth the wait. A final round of applause, ladies and gentlemen. They've earned it.

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