All’s well that ends well. After eight films in ten years and cumulative box-office returns of more than $6 billion, the Harry Potter franchise comes to a rousing conclusion in The Deathly Hallows Part II.
Having inherited the series from originator Chris Columbus and predecessors Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell, continuing director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have combined to bring a brisk efficiency to JK Rowling’s meandering, lumpy prose; trimming the story to the bare bones and giving the drama a sturdy bedrock on which to place a series of carefully orchestrated stand-offs and set-pieces. The tone has darkened considerably over the course of the saga with the conjuring tricks of the early films maturing into a shadowy landscape where magic is an expression of an inherent emotional state, be it good or evil, white or black.
The Deathly Hallows Part II brings all those bubbling themes to a head in a final showdown between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), an end-game that audiences have been waiting a decade to see. The film opens with the images that ended the previous installment as Voldemort lifts the all-powerful Elder Wand from its resting place in the now-dead Dumbledore’s tomb. The next thing we see is Hogwarts surrounded by a cordon of ragged wraiths as Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) continue their quest to find and destroy the four remaining Horcruxes (fragments of Voldemort’s soul), each successful discovery making their mortal enemy weaker in turn.
With access granted by the black-eyed goblin Griphook (Warwick Davis) to a bank vault owned by Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), the three are in sight of uncovering the last few clues. With the help of Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth (an almost unrecognisable Ciarán Hinds), they make their way back to Hogwarts where they are re-united with their old school friends, including Harry’s girlfriend Ginny (Bonnie Wright) and the now-heroic Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis). There, surrounded by his supporters, Harry faces-off against the slippery, sinister Snape (Alan Rickman) and Voldemort’s ever-growing army of ghouls in a seemingly-hopeless final battle for the fate of the wizarding world, and his life.
Perhaps it is the knowledge that the adventure is coming to an end but with this film Yates achieves a deeply satisfying sense of convergence, weaving together the countless thematic, dramatic and romantic themes from the past seven films, up to and including the ultimate, long-awaited comeuppance.
The Potter series has always been at the cutting edge of visual effects work, even if the balance between storytelling and spectacle hasn’t always been as finely judged as it might be. For this last installment Eduardo Serra’s brooding cinematography has been given an unrequested, rather underwhelming stereoscopic 3D conversion. The extra dimension adds a few humpbacked thrills to an early roller-coaster ride through the vaults of Gringotts’s bank and gives a greater sense of depth to the crowded spaces where Yates stages many of his scenes but the effect is, for the most part, imperceptible. The best of the effects work, and some of the most involving action in the entire series, is found in the final battle at a besieged Hogwarts. Here is a spectacle of death and destruction that plays out on a scale unlike anything else these films have attempted, the familiar halls and turrets crumbling in a tumble of stone around our heroes heads.
Having played Harry for exactly half his life, Radcliffe draws the curtain on his character with a grim-set sense of destiny, achieving the catharsis that, at times, threatened to remain forever beyond his talent. Although Grint and Watson are given ample screen-time they are essentially passengers in this section of the story, their long-awaited clinch not withstanding. Yates splices the rollicking action with valedictory cameos for the long list of British character actors who have graced the series, granting Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters a final curtain-call. Like the series itself, they go out on a high note.
Read my interview with Daniel Radcliffe and Brendan Gleeson on the set of The Order of the Phoenix here.