Here at last, in the final chapter, the Harry Potter franchise rouses itself toward something approaching greatness. The decision to split J.K. Rowling’s final volume into two parts, which may have looked in advance like a crass bid to drag out the cash cow one last time, has been triumphantly vindicated.
The first half of Rowling’s seventh book was dominated by a camping trip from hell and Twilighty angst that made for a dreary, unmagical and — for less than fully initiated fans — downright confusing middle movie, the only film in the series I didn’t enjoy on some level. Now, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 restores balance to the Force: Though (surprisingly) the briefest film in the series, at only 130 minutes, it achieves an epic, even operatic scope and scale that earlier films groped for without really achieving.
Harry Potter — The Boy Who Lived; The Boy Whom Things Happened To; The Boy Who Briefly Took the Reins and Then Ceded Them Again, reverting to passivity as recently as Deathly Hallows: Part 1 — is now, almost unexpectedly, not a boy of any sort, but a man. Whether squaring off against his old terror Snape at a Hogwarts’ assembly or facing the possibility of an ultimate sacrifice in a confrontation with You Know Who — no, with Voldemort — Harry is finally, convincingly, the hero we were always told he would be.
As for Voldemort himself — that nightmare terror, that bogeyman, that satanic incarnation of evil — when he and Harry finally cross paths, he seems surprisingly mortal, finite, vulnerable. If Harry is Luke Skywalker, Voldemort is Vader and the Emperor rolled into one — yet where Vader in Return of the Jedi seemed inexplicably diminished from the outset and the Emperor was struck down unexpectedly at his very moment of triumph, Voldemort has been progressively weakened by a series of blows, Horcrux upon shattered Horcrux, so that the figure whom Harry finally faces has become a shadow of what he would have been. Yes: This is how villains should go down.
Magical spectacle is back. After a number of films surprisingly low in eye candy, Harry Potter is worth looking at again, perhaps even in IMAX, although the 3-D conversion doesn’t add much. We’ve seen the bowels of Gringott’s Wizarding Bank before, but never like this: from a booby-trap spell that turns a pile of treasure into a throbbing, trash compactor-like deathtrap (sorry for the Star Wars references, Harry-heads; I’m showing my age) to the thunderous escape sequence on the back of an effect that ranks among the series’ most impressive creature achievements, especially in flight. Then there’s the siege of Hogwarts, and the preparations thereto; I like the animated stone warriors and a rare smile of delight from Maggie Smith’s McGonagall as she murmurs, “I always wanted to try that spell!”
Perhaps surprisingly, amid the darkness, humor is back. There was a little humor in Part 1, but it was spoiled for me by the setting. (Don’t ask me about the film before that — it’s all a blur at this point.) I can’t enjoy the last film’s visual punchline of a roomful of Harry Potters because of where that scene is going and my misgivings about it. Much funnier is a complete change of pace for Helena Bonham Carter, whose scene-stealing Bellatrix Lestrange has been a series highlight, here nailing another cast member’s mannerisms as a character awkwardly attempting to impersonate Lestrange. Then there’s Harry’s retort when Hermione wants to plan carefully for a dangerous mission: “Hermione, when have any of our plans actually worked? We plan; we get there; all hell breaks loose!” It’s like we’ve been given old friends back; I’m reminded of Indy’s offhand admission as he sets off after the ark: “I’m making this up as I go.” (There goes my age again.)
Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley thankfully no longer has time to be a whiner, even if he remains an unimpressive character unworthy of Emma Watson’s vivacious, assured Hermione. Perhaps the pairing works better in the books, or perhaps not, but Hermione settling for Ron (I’m sorry, but that’s definitely the word) feels like Rowling straining to avoid the obvious pairing of lead girl and lead boy just because. The same is true, alas, of Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry and Ginny Weasley, played by Bonnie Wright, who is likable but doesn’t have the opportunity to create a character distinguished or memorable enough to be a satisfying love interest for Harry.
The series has always been a showcase for noted British thespians, and this outing, as already suggested, honors a number of its stalwarts with terrific moments. Alan Rickman’s Snape stretches out his menacing utterances to impossible lengths, as if savoring their sheer malice, then gets even better moments as we see another side of Snape. Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort is at the heart of the film, and this is the performance I will always remember when I think of the character. There are nice moments for actors in supporting roles, both grown-ups (John Hurt as a broken Ollivander; Julie Walters as mama-bear Mrs. Weasley) and students (now-hulking Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom; Evanna Lynch as the unsettlingly dulcet-toned Luna Lovegood).
To whatever extent casual viewers who saw Part 1 eight months ago may still be a bit confused at times, I blame Part 1, not Part 2, for failing to set the stage. There are still some “Huh?” moments, though fewer and less nagging. (Yes, fans, I realize the book may put these incidents in a different light, but this is a movie review.)
For example, why establish that the heroes have captured Lestrange’s wand only to have them inexplicably refuse a request to produce this very object as a form of identification while using Lestrange’s identity? Why does Harry discover one of the most powerful and legendary objects in the wizarding world just before a crucial test, then apparently casually drop it on the ground moments later?
Again, why, after acquiring another such object, does Harry lightly destroy it? Is it because it’s too powerful for anyone to have, like Tolkien’s ring? But Dumbledore had it for a long time and apparently used it wisely and well. Why shouldn’t the series’ boy of destiny do as well? On Wikipedia I read that Dumbledore hoped the object’s power would be broken in the course of events. That’s not in the film, and, anyway, if that’s what Dumbledore wanted, why couldn’t he have taken the direct approach that Harry ultimately did?
Unfortunately, an unavoidable dramatic and moral problem is lodged right in the center of things, amid major revelations about a major character’s apparent act of treachery. It’s now revealed that one of the series’ most beloved and authoritative figures was complicit in a scheme that involved doing something evil that good might result. One may not directly kill someone, even at their insistence, even if they are dying already and even for desirable tactical reasons. While it’s possible to criticize the characters’ judgment here both morally and practically (since, as others have pointed out, it appears that the scheme ultimately fails and the whole subterfuge accomplishes nothing), this diminishes both the wisdom and judgment of the beloved authority figure and the intended heroism and redemption of his conspirator.
Also, this may seem a small thing, but I’m unhappy about the corrupted use of Christian vocabulary in the name of the so-called “resurrection stone,” which allows the wielder to communicate with departed loved ones. Some Christians may object to this device as a form of necromancy (here’s where I insert an obligatory, and happily final, reference to my essay on Harry Potter and magic in fiction). Since it doesn’t appear, though, that anyone seeks to find or use the stone, nor is there any attempt to gain occult knowledge from departed loved ones, it seems to me no more problematic (here we go again) than spectral Ben Kenobi appearing to Luke.
What bothers me, as a biblical studies and apologetics geek, is the spiritualization of the term “resurrection,” a Judeo-Christian term that properly refers to return to bodily life. This is far afield from magical fantasy, but misuse of this term has been used in biblical studies to suggest that the earliest Christians originally used “resurrection” language to express some vague belief in Jesus’ spiritual exaltation rather than a literal return to bodily life.
N. T. Wright devoted a big chunk of his 800-plus-page opus, The Resurrection of the Son of God, to establishing that first-century Jews, pagans and Christians would all have understood “resurrection” to refer unequivocally to the reversal or undoing of death — not mere life after death, but “life after life after death,” as Wright memorably put it. Rowling’s books allude directly to the New Testament teaching on the general resurrection — a citation from 1 Corinthians 15 is engraved on Harry’s parents’ headstone — but the corrupted use of this term is an unfortunate conceit.
On the other hand, the Christian-inflected subtext long championed by Orthodox writer John Granger, among others, is very much in evidence here: echoes of Gethsemane and Via Dolorosa; sacrifice; bearing a burden of evil; the defeat of evil in its seeming triumph; vindication; the power of a love that is stronger than death. There is not, perhaps, a Tolkien-like moment of grace amid failure, nor a Vader-like redemption from evil, but good triumphs satisfyingly over evil, and that’s probably enough.
The final chapter of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings has been much criticized for what an “Arts and Faith” participant called a “surfeit of closure.” Here there is a shortage. We’ve seen the wizarding world brought to the brink, the Ministry of Magic in shambles, Hogwarts devastated, and even the Muggle world has felt the blows. A brief coda gestures toward a return to normality with no hint of the road to recovery from Voldemort’s reign of terror. If the filmmakers couldn’t find a dramatic way of fleshing out the dénouement, perhaps there might have been a few closing titles in the manner of a fact-based drama (e.g., “Minerva McGonagall became headmistress of Hogwarts”). After eight installments, this last Harry Potter film finally left me wanting just a bit more.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content Advisory: Intense fantasy action and violence, including epic battle sequences and some frightening images; problematic revelations about a gravely immoral act in an earlier film; brief snogging; a few crude terms and curse words. Teens and up.