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Josh Reviews Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

I’ve made this comment in my last several Harry Potter film reviews, but it bears repeating one final time: what an astounding achievement it is, that this eight-film series has made it all the way to the end with the same ensemble of actors all the way through (save for the late Richard Harris).  And, even more than that, what an amazing stroke of luck it is that every single one of the young child-actors who appeared in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has grown into such a marvelous actor in his or her own right.

Though perhaps it’s not luck at all.  Though Chris Columbus’ two installments (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) are by far my least favorite films of the series, the man clearly deserves ENORMOUS credit for his great skill at casting.  The strength of the ensemble he assembled for those first two films has enabled this series to blossom in ways I never could have predicted when walking out of the theatre after seeing that first movie.  It’s a pretty unprecedented achievement.

Somehow I have watched the entire story of Harry Potter on film without having read any of the books (save for the first one, which I read the day before seeing the first film).  Heresy, I know!  But nothing in the first three movies made me want to read the books, and when I really started digging the film series during movie four (which was the first Harry Potter film that I really liked) and movie five (which still stands as my very favorite of the films), I figured that, at that point, I preferred to continue discovering the story through the films.  (Now that I have made it through to the end, I’m sure I will some day soon read through all seven of the books.)  But, for now, as in the past, I will report my comments on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II as someone taking in the film, and the film alone (rather than drawing a comparison to the novel).

I have written before, on this blog, when contemplating the end of long-running television shows, just how difficult it is to craft a satisfactory ending to a long-form story.  From everyone I know who has read the books, it seems that J.K. Rowling accomplished this feat when writing the seventh and final book, and I am pleased to report that the makers of this eight and final film have done the same.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II is an exciting, emotional ride from start to finish, and I felt it provided a wonderful ending to the saga.  I enjoyed the resolution given to the story-arcs of many of the characters.  Some were happy, some were tragic, but pretty much every major character ended up in a place that felt “right” to me.

I’ve been waiting, for several movies now, for a big confrontation between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  (My major complaint about the past several films has been how they’ve continually found ways to avoid showing us this big confrontation, and I will admit to starting to get a little impatient for the movies to get to the good stuff, already.)  Well, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is pretty much all the good stuff.  There’s one sort-of random digression early in the film (a raid on the bank vault at Gringott’s which was entertaining but felt a bit like killing time to me), and then the last two-thirds of the film is set at Hogwart’s over the course of a long, fateful night.

There are some extraordinary action sequences in this film, and the richness and complexity of the visual effects are astounding.  The Battle of Hogwarts is extraordinarily realized, filled to overflowing with iconic imagery and intense action.  The visual effects of the first few Harry Potter films seemed very dodgy and small-scale, but not so here.  This is an epic sequence that can stand head and shoulders with pretty much any other fantasy film series I can think of (including my beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy).

It’s wonderful that so much of the film is set at Hogwarts again.  It brings the series full circle in a way that I found surprisingly poignant.  In fact, throughout the film there were a ton of little moments that connected the story back to the events of the first film.  I was very pleased to see that pretty much every major surviving character (and even some who had NOT survived!) made an appearance in this movie.  Of course, I wish we’d gotten more time with many of those great characters (for example, we see Emma Thompson’s Professor Trelawney, and Jim Broadbent’s Professor Slughorn, but just for an instant — couldn’t we have given them a little more to do?) but I really shouldn’t complain.  I appreciate the filmmaker’s efforts to squeeze so many characters into the film.  It really helped give the movie a feeling of culmination.  (The only character that I was expecting to see, but didn’t, was John Cleese as Nearly Headless Nick.  There’s a moment when Harry realizes that a dead individual possesses some key information, and I was SURE that would be Nick.  But sadly it wasn’t!  Bummer.)

I was also pleased to see many of John Williams’ original Harry Potter themes (composed for the first film) make their reappearance.  This only added to the wonderful sense of full-circle completion that I have been commenting on, and those familiar musical motifs were used at exactly the right times, adding still one more layer of nostalgia and emotion to the proceedings.

At the end of every single previous Harry Potter film, I have commented that Alan Rickman’s performance as Severus Snape was pretty much the best thing about the film, and how much I wished he’d had a lot more screen time.  At long, long last, I got my wish — though I must confess to STILL wishing we’d been able to spend a lot more time with the deliciously complex Severus!  I felt he met his end far too quickly, though the flashback sequence that spells out his back-story is a tour de force of acting and editing, and finally gives this character his time in the spotlight.  It’s one of my favorite sequences in any of the Harry Potter films.

I was also pleased to see two other of my favorite supporting characters — Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall and Matthew Lewis’ Neville Longbottom — finally get some more screen-time.  (Though, again, I wish we’d gotten to spend even MORE time with both of them!)  Professor McGonagall’s duel with Snape is dynamite (though curiously the film doesn’t specify whether she survived the final Battle of Hogwarts, or did I miss something?), and of course Neville’s speech to Voldemort is one of the most potent emotional climaxes of the film.

And this is indeed a film filled with potent emotional climaxes.  I thought the long-awaited kiss between Ron and Hermione was well-handled, with just the right dash of comic sweetness.  It was a well-earned moment for those two characters, and seeing the two of them happy together is one of the most satisfactory aspects of the film’s ending.

I was a little less-satisfied with the moments between Harry and Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright).  I’ve always really enjoyed young Ms. Wright as Ginny, so I was bummed that she gets barely a minute of screen-time in the film, before the epilogue.  Her kiss with Harry seemed perfunctory and unsatisfying to me.  If we’re supposed to accept that she’s Harry’s true love, then the film needs to SELL that a little bit!  I would have liked to have seen her be more involved in the final battle, and what came after.  I understand that the film’s ending needed to focus on the trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but somehow I still felt Ginny should have been a part of that last scene between the three young friends before the fade to black and the epilogue.

Speaking of the epilogue: perfect.  Even without having read the books, I knew that epilogue was coming, and I’d heard it had been a tough sequence for the filmmakers to nail down.  (Apparently the original make-up effects were unconvincing, so the scenes were re-shot.)  However long and hard a road it took to arrive at the finished sequence, I found it to be quite magnificent.  I loved the aged look of the characters — clearly older, but not too fake-looking or silly.  The sequence was emotional, sad and triumphant all at once, and I thought it was a fantastic ending to the saga.

And of course, I was also extraordinarily pleased with the finale given to Ralph Fiennes’ Lord Voldemort himself.  Over the course of the series, Mr. Fiennes has crafted a wonderfully fiendish, iconic villain, but to this point we’ve only seen Voldemort in very small doses.  Here though, at last, we get to spend a lot of screen-time with he who shall not be named, and Mr. Fiennes doesn’t disappoint.  I loved his scenes with Harry, and I was pleased that this villain — who had been so built up over seven previous movies as the ULTIMATE EVIL — wasn’t defeated too easily (something I’d been really afraid of).  His final demise was satisfying (and visually spectacular).  Very well done indeed.

I started out as a disbeliever, and it took me a while (four films, in fact) to come around.  But here now, at the end, I can say that the eight Harry Potter films stand as one of the great fantasy epics of our time.  I really look forward to revisiting the entire saga, from start-to-finish, some time in the future.  (And maybe even, someday, reading the books!)  To everyone involved in this series, I say bravo.

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