The saga finds its end in the stunning Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
I was 10-years-old when Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone (Columbus, 2001) hit cinemas. Forgive my nostalgia, but those were great times; times of innocence and optimism, when fantasy was tangibly close to reality, an idea from which age formally resigns us. I remember seeing the film at the cinema with my parents where, as an avid fan of the books, I was instantly swept up in the magic. I remember the first time we see Hogwarts, the first encounters with Snape (Alan Rickman) and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and most of all I remember that chess board, and the red jumper Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) wore when Quirrell's (Ian Hart) head grotesquely births the form of Voldermort. Blimey, I even remember that first Quidditch match. How I loved, and will now miss, revisiting Hogwarts each term. Over time the series has matured and I, like Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), have grown older. Walking into the cinema this morning I acknowledged a peculiar feeling in the pit of my stomach which, despite everything, I hadn't counted on. It wasn't the fear of not getting in, although this seemed possible as my screening was incredibly well attended by adults and children alike, all eager fans of the series, a fact I could tell by the expressions of sadness and excitement decorating their faces. But I did get my ticket, and as I took my seat - C13 - the feeling became more prominent. I realized, dramatic as it sounds, that this was the end of an era, and so I needed Deathly Hallows: Part 2 to be a fitting conclusion to the story which sparked my imagination all those years ago. Thank Dumbledore then that Yates' film is every bit as good as we wanted and needed it to be. There are niggles here and there, sure, but they mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. This, for everyone, but especially for those who have grown up with the series, is the masterpiece we've been waiting for, and it left me deeply moved by its conclusion. Indeed, I don't quite know what to do with myself now that it's over. I know even less how to do this review...
If you've read this far then you probably won't need the plot explaining, so I'll keep the word count down on the assumption that you're a fan, and know where we're up to. Much has been made of the fact that Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is essentially a two-hour action sequence following on from the more expository Part 1 (2010), but nothing could be further from the truth. The first third of the film, despite a few set-pieces, including a spectacular dragon breakout from Gringotts, is a measured and contemplative affair, shaded in moody tones and unfurling in deep silences. Deathly Hallows, the first part included, is absolutely stunning to look at, and some of the early interior shots in this film are packed with feeling; almost as if the four walls are withholding a pensive sadness, looking out at the introspective characters who carry the burden of all that has come before. DP Eduardo Serra shoots through a lens of grey and blue, drifting between hyperreality and all-out fantasy with ease. The first couple of scenes with Harry, Ron and Hermione could even pass for Bergman which, I assure you, isn't a comparison I make lightly. I'm reminded of the way characters sit in a Bergman film, and the stillness with which they are observed. The attention lies with language, which is multi-layered and confrontational. In fact, I'm most reminded of that bible quote - 1 Corinthians 13:12 - which inspired Bergman so often: When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly..." Christians would interpret the quote as being about our relationship with God, but to me it's about coming-of-age, and therefore suits the series denouement perfectly.
When the action arrives it is on a scale unprecedented for the franchise. Hogwarts assembles a defensive stronghold, led by McGonagall (Maggie Smith), while Harry and co. search for the remaining Horcruxes to weaken Voldermort. There's really a cause to celebrate the CGI here, because it's some of the best I've ever seen. My problem with CGI has previously boiled down to the fact that it lacks weight, and its presence does not lie in the frame, so I find myself disconnected from the action. No such thing happens in Deathly Hallows, for two important reasons. Firstly, the CGI (which is superbly rendered) really does carry weight due to its combined use with in-camera effects - such as the way a spell (digitally created) will knock a character across a room (achieved, classically, by wires and gym mats), and this means that it's consistent with the rest of the onscreen world. But secondly, and most vitally, the effects are used to reinforce the drama, which is how the film fundamentally separates itself from 90% of other contemporary blockbusters. The story is always at the forefront of the picture - when the characters exchange blows we understand the emotions behind their actions, because they are fully developed, and we care about them as people. Basically, it breaks down to this: the effects are there to serve the story, rather than the story existing for the sake of effects, à la Green Lantern (Campbell, 2011).
Yates also has a tremendous sense of space, and the scope of his central battle is impressive. The fight begins with a wide shot of the forcefield protecting Hogwarts, which soon takes fire from the thousands of dark souls comprising Voldermort's army. Their magic bolts ascend through the air, illuminating the frame with danger, and soon the legions are forcing their way into the school. Tracking shots are brilliantly employed here, as they allow the viewer time to absorb the full scale of the attack. They also help to establish location, and the focused editing, rather than the frenzied chopping which dictates most modern action cinema, ensures that the battle is paced and coherent. Yet the thing I loved most about the battle - and what I wish it did a little more - was the way in which it frequently paused for thought, allowing the characters to interact and intelligently assess their situation. In these scenes Yates focuses, using close-ups, on the faces of our protagonists, which he can now do with confidence because Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have become very fine actors, and embody their parts perfectly. I only wish this scope extended to side characters, as the camera often pans across a location seemingly for the sole purpose of acknowledging that somebody is still alive; Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), being a noticeable example. But admittedly this would have slowed the film down, and overall the battle is expertly judged and visually breathtaking.
There's another scene during the battle which I want to discuss over this next paragraph, but it involves *SPOILERS*, so skip ahead to the end if you haven't already read the book or seen the film. After several hours of battle many familiar faces have fallen to their knees, including Snape - whose death really pushes the boundaries of the 12A rating - and Harry is called by Voldermort to the Forbidden Forest, where he realizes he must die. What happens next is truly audacious, as Yates takes us to a form of celestial resting place, which I resist calling heaven for now. Harry wakes, bathed in light, in a ghostly version of King's Cross Station, where his magical adventures began all those years ago. I can't fully describe the location to you, but it is pure white, and unpopulated except for Harry and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The most striking moment in this scene caused my audience to take a sharp intake of breath, and I admit to having done the same myself. Drawn by an unusual sound emanating from under a lone bench, Harry investigates to find the whimpering foetus of Voldermort, crunched up to protect itself. The red of its skin, bathed in blood, is all the more frightening for being placed against the pure white surroundings, and I came to realize another thing. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is not only an example of perfect blockbuster entertainment, completely uncompromised in its vision, but is also a work of art, crafted by a brave and intelligent filmmaker who truly cares about the story he's telling. With this moment Harry Potter - the franchise - confirms its cinematic importance, and has ensured its lasting power.
So, we've come to that final set-piece. I feel like a lot of reviews have been dishonest in describing the Harry vs. Voldermort showdown, so to some it may feel like an anti-climax. The scene is pulsing with emotional energy, and is actually quite brief, lasting for no more than a couple of minutes. Once again Yates focuses his camera on faces, observing the fear and anger which possess them. It's not about the act of violence itself, but rather cause and effect - flashbacks reinforce Harry's psychological state, and for once don't feel like a cheap gimmick. Alexandre Desplat's score is also vital here; he could have gone overboard with dramatic strings and choral opera, but instead he underplays the action, stirring the soul with subtle tones. In fact, I can't remember the precise music used in this scene - to me, by memory, it is entirely silent. I also feel like I should take this time to praise Ralph Fiennes, who has really defined the last few films with his haunting, slit-nosed Voldermort, who stalks the land of the living like Death himself. His vocal performance is so impeccably realised and his physical movement so chilling that it's impossible to recognize the actor; he's truly immersed in the part. Oscar would never award this kind of film outside of technical categories, but he really is working on that level, and deserves a supporting nod.
The last time we see Hogwarts it is in ruins; for me recalling photos from WWII of bombed-out cathedrals and town halls ripped apart by gunfire. The shot lingers long enough for the viewer to, in their mind, say goodbye. But the epilogue, set 19 years later, brings the series full circle and ends on a welcome note of hope. Platform 9¾ evokes so many memories, and the shot of a chocolate frog leaping across the trains interior window was enough to bring a tear to my eye. I'll miss this place, I thought to myself. More than I ever thought I would...
NOTE: The film has been retrofitted into 3D, but you'd be doing yourself a gross injustice by seeing the film that way. Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is a film cloaked in shadow; its depth arises from darkness, and seeing the film in 3D - where the image would be dimmed and reduced in size - would greatly damage the cinematography, and even affect the tone of the piece. This is a film which has to be seen how it was shot. It's the cheaper option and the better option, so please, for your enjoyment, pay for 2D.