It’s taken 10 years and nearly 20 hours of screen time for J.K. Rowling’s towering fantasy saga to reach its cinematic conclusion. Yet as the final incantation is spoken and the curtain falls on the highest-grossing franchise in movie history, more than a few viewers may be left wondering: Why the rush? The series’ shortest entry at 131 minutes, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” surges ahead with tremendous urgency, superb spectacle and powerful, even overwhelming emotion, only to falter with a hasty sendoff that seems to buckle under the weight of audience expectations. Tears will be shed as fans bid farewell to Hogwarts, but catharsis remains just out of reach.
A memorable early setpiece at the wizard bank Gringotts, with priceless jewels multiplying ad infinitum in an underground vault, reps an apt visual metaphor for the Midas touch Harry Potter has demonstrated at the box office ($6 billion in worldwide receipts and counting), and will continue to show in ancillary for years to come. The new film should only benefit from its position as franchise-capper, as even casual fans will line up to witness the passing of this pop-culture milestone. Factor in 3D ticket surcharges and higher-than-usual repeat biz, and the July 15 release could well overtake the $974 million grossed by 2001’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the series’ first and still most lucrative title.
Such enormous anticipation has saddled “Part 2” with pressures no movie should have to bear, and it should rightly be viewed and assessed as the second half of one long film (the full double feature is being presented in select theaters). Still, as director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have constructed their two-part finale to pay off in full here, it’s only fair to expect this eighth chapter to stand on its own, which it does up to a point. Indeed, with its accelerated rhythm, relentless flow of incident and wizard-war endgame, “Part 2” will strike many viewers as a much more exciting, involving picture than the slower, more atmospheric “Part 1.”
Here, character dynamics and expository catch-up are cast aside in favor of swift, decisive action, as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) hunt down the magical Horcruxes that keep Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) tethered to this world. All roads lead back to Hogwarts, no longer a whimsical boarding school but a grim stronghold for Death Eaters and Dementors.
As preparations are made for an epic clash between good and evil, Yates achieves a thrilling sense of convergence, of innumerable dramatic, thematic, romantic, emotional and musical threads from the past seven films being woven together at last: Old and new friends are well met, comeuppances are dealt out, and little-seen veterans are granted a valedictory moment in the spotlight. Former pipsqueak Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) emerges as one of Hogwarts’ truest heroes, and for the first time in ages, Professors McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Flitwick (Warwick Davis) and Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) are allowed to perform substantial feats of magic.
Best of all, the shifty Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) reveals his true colors at last, in a stirring, revelatory montage that calls forth more emoting from this supremely supercilious figure in five minutes than he’s shown in seven films. And the film does full justice to the most profoundly moving passage in Rowling’s novels, as Harry comes to grips with the inevitability of death, the enduring consolations of friendship and valor, and the mystery of what lies in the world beyond.
Through it all, Yates and Kloves take unusual and mostly shrewd liberties with Rowling’s sacred text, mainly during the long, devastating siege at Hogwarts — an extended setpiece that was always going to play better onscreen than on the page. Yates and his team of design artists and f/x wizards take strategic advantage of the castle grounds (masterfully designed by Stuart Craig) to deliver fantastically inventive sights and setpieces that, if never quite rivaling the great war films for martial splendor, nonetheless exist on a scale unlike anything the series has attempted. In the most inspired departure from the book, Voldemort feels weakened each time a Horcrux is destroyed, allowing the digitally disfigured Fiennes to introduce, rather astonishingly, a shade of vulnerability in his portrait of implacable evil.
But all good things must come to an end, and here that applies to not only the series as a whole but also the very real and very dark magic “Part 2” manages to weave in its first 90 minutes. Of all the ways to dramatize the inevitable final faceoff, the filmmakers have chosen one that, while more cinematic than the novel’s version, feels unduly hastened, violates some fundamental rules of Rowling’s universe, and hands the Dark Lord’s pet snake rather too prominent a role. More to the point, the climax feels emotionally muted and disengaged, and its anemic execution would be forgivable only if the entire series had not been building to this moment.
While Yates’ economy is admirable, this is one picture that had every right to take its time and allow viewers the courtesy of a more ceremonious and protracted farewell. Fans of long-form blockbuster fantasy may find themselves yearning for the multiple endings of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,” which grasped the wisdom of giving the public too much rather than not enough. The significance of the titular Deathly Hallows also gets short shrift, as the tangled backstory of the late Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and his brother (a formidable Ciaran Hinds) is acknowledged but left disappointingly unexplored.
Quibbling over what’s been left out has, of course, always been part of the fun and the frustration of grappling with this addictive franchise. Placed in the unenviable position of having to please everyone, producer David Heyman and Warner Bros. are to be congratulated for having gotten the big-picture essentials exactly right, delivering an eight-film cycle of remarkable integrity and continuity. By allowing infusions of fresh talent from directors like Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell while honoring the fidelity of Rowling’s work and by casting three talented but untested young thesps alongside the biggest names in British acting, the filmmakers have created something indelible while keeping risk and reverence in judicious balance.
In keeping with its predecessors, “Part 2” delivers below-the-line work of an immaculate standard. The visual effects are so deftly and artfully handled that the magic seems almost commonplace, and Alexandre Desplat’s fine score incorporates a gratifying blast of John Williams’ familiar themes and, most poignantly, a mournful Nicholas Hooper composition from the sixth pic. D.p. Eduardo Serra’s brooding, beautiful work gains little, however, from the underwhelming stereoscopic conversion; this is the first Potter film to be released entirely in 3D as well as 2D, and on this count, at least, one can be grateful that it will be the last.